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. (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 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.
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.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.