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Traumatic Separations =Lasting Scars

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

July is National Minority Mental Health Month. I can think of no issue that has a more profound impact on children and their mental health than traumatic separation. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), traumatic separations occur when children are suddenly, unexpectedly, and prolongedly separated from parents, guardians, siblings, or other pillars of their day-to-day lives. Such separations are frequently associated with other traumatic events.

When I first heard the stories about children near our southern border being forcibly removed from their parents, my heart was overwhelmed with sadness. I have listened to many heartbreaking tales from families that have made dangerous treks from South or Central America to escape all sorts of atrocities. These families came to the United States looking for safety. Such harrowing stories are regrettably common and also shared by individuals from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Many immigrants journey to the United States in the hope of finding safety and security.

These stories reminded me of other stories of U.S. children who are currently living without their parents. According to Child Welfare Gateway, on any given day in 2016, 437,465 U.S. children were in care. Although 44% of such children were in the care of relatives, most were in non-relative care. While 51% would return home and be reunified with their families, the rest remained permanently separated from their parents. Despite considerable efforts to address the disparities in our child welfare system, 22% of the children were African American, 21% were Hispanic, and 44% were White. The numbers of White and Hispanic children keep growing ever year. Many of these children are from low-income communities.

Children are removed from their homes from any number of reasons including

  • Parental incarceration,

  • Immigration,

  • Parental deportation,

  • Parental military deployment,

  • And child welfare involvement.

Children are usually separated from their families for legitimate reasons. However, we know the cost of removing any child from his or her primary guardian. Such separations are associated with profound feelings of loss and can be traumatizing. Regardless of the age of the child or the length of time that the child is away from the primary caregiver, the experience interrupts a child's sense of safety, security, trust, and self. According to the NCTSN, some of the symptoms children may develop include nightmares; recurring thoughts about being removed; avoidance; increased fears and anxieties about the experience; changes in sleep, diet, and behavior; irritability; anger; self-destructive thoughts; problems with attention and focus; and even physical ailments.

We have too many children bearing the scars of traumatic separation. Being separated from parents can lead to problems with attachment later in life. Additionally, separation has been associated with negative long-term academic, legal, health, behavioral, and social outcomes. No matter how good a placement is, every separation makes a lasting impact.

Having worked with countless families involved with juvenile justice and legal systems, I know that traumatic separations are a part of many narratives. These anecdotal experiences are supported by research that correlates traumatic separation with risks of potential future legal involvement, academic challenges, and other social challenges. In part, because traumatic separations affect on the development of the self and the adaptive responses that many children use to cope with feelings of loss.

This issue cannot be understated. Children and families always pay a cost when their families are fractured and their injuries are reflected within our society.

Parenthetically, I would also like to address a concern I have heard repeatedly that too much attention is being paid to the fate of the refugees from Central and South America who are at the fore of our awareness because their children have been taken away from them. The lament goes something like, “My community has too many unmet needs. Why should resources go to the care and welfare of other children when ‘needs at home’ still exist in such great numbers?” This article doesn’t provide space to fully address such concerns. However, in my opinion, that framework is from a deficit-based approach that pits groups of marginalized people against each other for crumbs and limited resources. The United States, one of the richest countries on the planet, has more than enough resources to be compassionate and to respond to the needs of individuals who are escaping abject poverty, extreme violence, and death. Our nation is entirely capable of taking care of the needs of individuals in urban and rural communities, too. We are a country with affluence and abundance.

Love and compassion abound. Any time you find yourself wanting to withhold resources and care for fear that you or your community, neighborhood, or “tribe” will miss out in some way, challenge yourself. Instead, choose love. Appeal to your stakeholders, leaders, and government officials—ask for more for everyone.

Whenever possible, we need to prioritize family preservation, reunification, and stabilization. Whenever feasible, children should be raised by their parents or have frequent and regular contact with their parents—or consistent trusted adult caregivers. If children need to be separated from their families, that step should always be the last resort; and should never be done arbitrarily or politically. We also need to acknowledge that separation comes with a heavy cost. Subsequently, we must invest in the resources, supports, and structures to make sure that the children enduring such experiences are never alone in them.

It it is important to remember : "The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members." Mahatma Gandhi

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