This Is What Happens To A Child's Brain When They're Physically Separated From Their Parents

Border wall between Texas and Mexico. Westlee Jay Appleton/Shutterstock

Since early May, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has resulted in the detention of more than 2,000 children, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The policy, which aims at prosecuting illegal border-crossing offenses, applies to all adults whether or not they come with children. Adults that do come with children are being separated, with children placed in temporary care facilities while their parents await prosecution from the Justice Department.  

“Taking children away from their mothers is harmful to them,” Jack Shonkoff, who directs the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, told PBS. “There’s nothing complicated about that, and there’s incredibly strong science and a big hunk of common sense that both lead us to the same conclusions.” 

Adverse Childhood Experiences are characterized as stressful or traumatic events in a child’s life that can lead to long-term issues. When a child is physically separated from their parents they can begin to experience what is known as toxic stress

The human body responds to stress by increasing its heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones like cortisol. When these symptoms occur in a healthy environment, the result can be tolerable (serious but temporary responses) or even positive (brief increases in heart rate with mild elevations of hormone levels). However, when a child isn’t able to find the support they need, prolonged stress can result in physical symptoms with lifelong ramifications similar to those experienced with physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, and exposure to violence. These act to disrupt healthy brain development, increasing risk of stress-related diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and substance abuse) as well as cognitive impairment continuing into adulthood.

Once detained, children at the border are placed in a Border Patrol facility. This process lasts for as long as three days before they are transferred to longer-term shelters or placed with families or sponsors.  

Experts have urged the administration to reverse its policy, including written statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association. Over 9,000 mental health professionals and organizations have also signed a petition expressing concern over the policy.

“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” reads the petition. 

The Associated Press visited one site earlier this week, describing an old warehouse in South Texas where "hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing."

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern, but the two parties remain divided as to what a potential legislative solution would look like. President Trump addressed the "illegal immigration crisis" on Tuesday, saying it has been going on for many, many decades."

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