On October 3, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages on behalf of the children and parents “who were forcibly torn from each other under the Trump administration’s illegal practice of separating families at the border.” The complaint discusses the traumatic effects that even brief family separation has on children.

Protestors attend a march against family separation at the border in Los Angeles on June 26, 2018

Protestors attend a march against family separation at the border in Los Angeles on June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Family separation in the U.S. is not just happening at the border. Since 2012, the foster care system has been overwhelmed with new entries. Many who work in child welfare attribute this increase to a correlative rise in opioid addiction, concerns that parents with a substance use disorder (SUD) are per se unfit to raise children, and a lack of family-centered treatment programs.

The child welfare system faces systemic issues with few resources and practically no ability to confront generational social inequalities. Over 78% of children in the U.S. enter foster care due to allegations of neglect (often failure to provide food, shelter, or medical care). As such, families who are below the poverty line are twenty-two times more likely to be involved in the child protection system than families with incomes slightly above it. Lower-income parents and/or parents of color are also more rigidly scrutinized: families who are already involved with government welfare programs are more susceptible to intervention from the child welfare system, and black babies are more likely to be screened for drugs and removed from their families if they test positive. Parents are losing custody of their children mainly due to inherent societal inequities. This appears to be increasingly true for parents with SUDs who are willing and able to care for their children but must navigate a rigid and reactive system.

The most affected victims of family separation in this context are often the children. Studies show that removing children from their families and placing them in foster care has been associated with consequences that place children at risk for mental, physical, and developmental problems. They are often more likely to enter the juvenile justice system. Policies which separate parents and their children as a first resort often result in a cost that outweighs the perceived benefits.

Researchers attribute these issues, in part, to attachment theory: the theory that, when an infant is unable to appropriately bond with a sensitive and loving caretaker, that infant develops inappropriate stress responses that can affect them for the rest of their lives. Likewise, children who are already bonded with their parents but are forced to separate, even if that parent is abusive or neglectful, experience negative side effects. In extreme cases, the pain of separation from the caregiver is so great and the level of despair experienced by the children so extreme that they give up on the hope of ever having a secure relationship. Even the most sensitive, caring parents may be unable to undo the damage caused by an abrupt or poorly-managed separation, including the biological parents that the child had originally bonded with. This trauma can permanently harm a child and lead to deleterious effects well into adulthood, including substance use disorders, poverty, and criminality. These children then grow to have children of their own, and the cycle begins anew.

In 2011, a woman named Yvonne was at the doctor when she found out she was pregnant. Yvonne had been struggling with opioid use disorder, so her doctor advised her to begin taking methadone. She complied with the treatment plan, and her infant was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition common among babies whose mothers had been taking methadone during pregnancy. The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services filed an abuse and neglect complaint against Yvonne based on her drug use before and during her pregnancy. For almost 50 days, Yvonne was denied access to her baby in an effort to protect the child, although attachment theory posits that the harms of separation may far outweigh the benefits.

Welfare agencies may be able to implement programs which seek to benefit the family as a unit, and not the child as a separate, removable part. Studies have found that rates of safety are better for children in family preservation programs which keep the child at home, rather than those in foster care. Some organizations recommend that agencies invest in promising practices and program models to prevent child removal and safely promote family stabilization and child development. Researchers recommend that family courts select expert witnesses with knowledge of attachment theory, adequately screen these experts for their knowledge and experience, and insist on a comprehensive, relationship-based assessment of the child’s attachment.

Immigrant parents are not unlike parents who struggle with an SUD. Both are often trying to do what is best for their child in the face of the unavoidable trauma of poverty and instability. Both deserve the opportunity and support needed to raise their children, for the health and wellbeing of their children and generations to come.