Between 2017 and 2018, more than 5,000 children were forcibly removed from their parents under the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy. The move became infamous, attracting opprobrium from civil rights groups and scientists alike. Now, four years after the policy was installed, the lasting effects are starting to come to light – and they’re just as heartbreaking as you would expect.
“One 8-year-old boy was still having nightmares two years after being reunited with his parents,” said Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Program and co-author of a new study on the psychological aftermath of the policy. The study was published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
“[This] should really cause us to look at how our immigration policies are implemented,” she said. “How did we get to this, and how do we prevent it from happening again?”
The researchers analyzed 31 medico-legal affidavits – sworn testimony from clinical specialists who were familiar with families who had been separated at the border. The results were “nearly uniform,” the study explains: “nearly all” parents and children showed “symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its residual effects.”
Those symptoms range from “feelings of confusion [and] general upset to severely depressed mood,” all the way up to suicidal thoughts and “pure agony,” the study reports. Even after being reunited with their parents, children who had been separated were described as showing behaviors like “crying, not eating, having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, excessive parental attachment, clinging to caregivers, urinary incontinence, and recurring feelings of fear.”
Out of all 31 asylum seekers, only three – all adults – did not meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder, depression, or some combination of the three. One girl, just 6 years old, was still showing signs of PTSD a whole year after being reunited with her parents.
Not only has the policy of forced separation resulted in extreme psychological trauma, but it’s likely those affected will go on to have lasting health effects, the paper notes.
“Untreated trauma can have chronic and long-lasting effects on both adults and on children and adversely affect their physical, mental, developmental, and behavioral health,” the authors explain. “Those who experience trauma, especially as children, have higher rates of chronic medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature death”
The levels of trauma described in the affidavits have prompted experts, including Physicians for Human Rights, to conclude that the “zero tolerance” policy “constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment,” the paper notes.
“Moreover, all cases reviewed for this project rise to the level of torture [as] defined by the United Nations Convention Against Torture,” the authors add. “Torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment are violations of human rights and are prohibited under domestic and international law in any and all circumstances.”
While recovery from the forced separation is possible, the study notes that it will take “robust therapeutic support” focusing on “trauma-focused psychotherapy, removal from detention, and psychiatric medications.”
It’s worth noting that the study was limited to families that suffered some of the less extreme separations – no children under six were included, for example, and families were separated for an average of one or two months. In reality, some children removed from their parents were so young that at least two were still breastfeeding, and many of the forced separations lasted so long that at least 2,100 children still hadn’t been reunited with their parents by June 2021.
“The decision to separate very young children, including nursing and preverbal children, from their parents, without any intent to reunify or even to effectively track the separations, is not a legitimate policy choice – indeed the policy violated well-established principles of human rights,” the authors write. “The resulting severe psychological harms, which were intentionally inflicted by the U.S. government, creates a moral imperative to assist this population, and to do so urgently.”