In an unprecedented and horrifying chess move, the current administration deliberately tried to force Congress to pass new immigration policies and build a wall by enforcing a “zero tolerance policy” that literally ripped families apart as they tried to cross the border. The images of inconsolable sobbing children and babies torn from parents’ arms will never be forgotten. The recent Executive Order signed by President Trump to stop this barbaric behavior was driven by “babies crying is not a good look” rather than a steadfast commitment to the idea that families should not be separated. For more than 2,300 children, this new development comes simply too late. There is no question that this type of trauma will cause irreversible harm and emotional damage.
Makeshift shelters that house infants taken from parents shake me to the core as they have millions of other people in the U.S. and around the world, including medical professionals, members of Congress, and religious leaders. The New York Times refers to these infants and children as hostages locked up like animals in cages in warehouses and tents. Migrant children are being drugged with psychotropic drugs and told the pills are vitamins. The trauma and the vicarious trauma resulting from exposure to these atrocities will not soon heal, and we — mental health professionals and all citizens — must galvanize together in order to help heal the wounds caused by these inhumane practices.
Toxic stress and trauma affect the mental and physical well-being of children separated from their parents. This was made clear when Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a Texas shelter this spring, where she learned staffers were not allowed to touch children who had been separated from their families. The staffers offered toys and books to console the girl they were with, but they told Kraft they were not allowed to hold her. It doesn’t take a medical doctor or a mental health professional to know that being ordered not to hold or touch an inconsolable and grieving child is beyond inhumane. According to Dr. Kraft, “We, in this action, are inflicting toxic stress on these children.” Indeed, by ripping children from their families and then refusing to physically comfort and console them, we are entering the dark night of our collective souls.
Many of the arrivals at the U.S. border are fleeing violence in their home Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, known as the Northern Triangle. Gang violence, extortion, drug cartels, and the murder of family members and friends have driven parents to flee with their children. Beginning in 2014, there was a surge of unaccompanied minors arriving to the U.S. border. Parents found themselves making the painful decision to send their sons away to seek safety rather than watch them be threatened by gang intimidation or even worse. But instead of finding safety, they are torn apart and re-traumatized. The children are traumatized, the parents are traumatized, the Border Patrol guards are traumatized; in fact, the entire world is traumatized by this senseless and inhumane practice.
The adverse effects of childhood trauma due to mental and emotional abuse will have long-lasting effects on these children and their families. And the trauma of helplessly watching this trauma occur to infants and children will not soon leave our collective memory. Our society may suffer collective guilt over what we have done to those who are marginalized and oppressed.
The American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association, and the American Medical Association have all taken strong stands against this practice, imploring the administration to consider the psychological and emotional damage that separating families does to both parents and children. There is no time for thoughts and prayers; we must take action. Your representatives work for you. Demand change, demand that the children taken be reunited immediately with their families, and, if you don’t feel represented, vote for change. It is not only the right thing to do; it is the only thing to do.
Colleen Logan, PhD, LPC-S, is director of the Fielding Graduate University’s master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.