The trauma of child separation


A recent dream was the impetus for this post. While I pretty much never want to hear about someone’s dream, against my better judgment, I’m going to begin with it:

I was doing some kind of an internship and was tasked with detaining children alone. I showed up to an apartment. I had some kind of miniature truck that had a flat tire and I was frantically trying to use my phone to call for help. A woman helped, and I slowly realized this was the mother. I took out a crinkled sheet of paper with scribbles on it and asked if this was her. She said yes and I told her I had to take her kids. She sadly acquiesced and started getting them ready. At this point, the large, angry dad started berating me. I remained calm, and tried to reason with him. I exhorted him to be friendly to social workers, case managers, and judges. Be nice to the system – for they can make your life even worse should you choose to direct your venom at it. While this was happening, the kids escaped and I began freaking out over this. Usually, once I start to panic in a dream I wake up.

I’ve never worked at a job that detained children, but I’ve worked directly with those who are actively in the process of doing so. I’ve worked directly with families navigating the messy aftermath. Even today, though my job is more administrative-focused, there are still a few functions I perform which entail seeing frustrated clients stuck in the labyrinthine child welfare system.

One of things I periodically do is administer family court-mandated drug tests. This is not something they generally like having to do several times a week. Sometimes they vent, and I let them – often this is about their shitty case managers, an asshole judge, or how difficult it is to make time for the tests –  and I sometimes find myself giving the same advice I gave in my dream: no matter how much you think the system is bad, be nice to the people in it because they can make things much worse. I don’t know if this is good advice. Warring inside my head are thoughts of “yes, I would hate it if I were treated like this” (which is what I verbalize), and “well, you brought this on yourself,” or “maybe you should have thought of this before you did whatever it was that endangered your kids and brought state involvement into your life.” Also in the back of my mind is the ever-present aversion to bootlicking.

Some may choose to ignore the litany of nuances related to American children being removed from their homes and say “fuck these child abusers,” a condemnation that parallels a common conservative response to the immigrant crisis: those parents are endangering their children by breaking the law – they have no one to blame but themselves. If you are one of those people I have sad news for you: uncompromising measures like locking up parents, or less restrictive measures, which are still formidable obstacles, all prolong the time kids spent in out of home care. This is usually very bad, and we aren’t remotely close to having an effective system in place to manage such massive amounts of human misery. The end result is that many children lost within the child welfare system – whether it’s for a few weeks or a few years – grow up facing even more hurdles than before they were detained.

***

In many, probably most, experiences I’ve had in child welfare, children love their parents, no matter what they’ve done. I’ve worked on many cases that ended in sobbing which continued until the children were dropped off at their foster homes. I can’t stress this enough. As bad as child abuse and neglect is, the trauma of separation is not to be dismissed or trivialized. This has historically been largely invisible to the general public (as I’ve stressed in other blog posts, most people give next to no passing thought to child welfare).

On the other hand, child welfare as it related to family separation at the border has rightfully gained visibility. ICE scumbags are fucking up an entire generation of children:

“It’s not like an auto body shop where you fix the dent and everything looks like new. We’re talking about children’s minds,” said Luis H. Zayas, professor of social work and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Children who have undergone traumatic separation often cling desperately to their parents after they are reunited and refuse to let them out of their sight, say therapists and child psychologists. Many suffer from separation anxiety, cry uncontrollably and have trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares.

Others develop eating disorders, problems with trust and unresolved anger, in some cases against their parents.

“You see some children even strike out at the parents. They don’t always understand why their parents abandoned them and sometimes blame them. So they have difficulty reattaching,” Zayas said.

[…]

Left untreated, such trauma can lead to deeper problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, alcoholism and even suicidal behavior, said Jodi Berger Cardoso, an assistant professor at the University of Houston who studies the effects of trauma on immigrants.

Children intercepted at the border are often especially vulnerable to developing PTSD and other disorders because their families are fleeing violence and catastrophe.

[…]

Studies have shown that boys held in detention, even for short periods of time, such as two or three weeks, can develop anti-social behavior, violence and substance abuse problems. Teenage girls more often show depressive disorders and substance abuse.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is very prevalent among and greatly inhibits a person’s ability to form positive relationships

Much of this is also applicable to American children that have been separated from their families.

***

Of late, I’ve often found myself thinking, in one regard, like the xenophobic nativists that I revile. In the halcyon days of the George W Bush era, I recall having arguments about how I felt far more affinity to Iraqi civilians than American soldiers shooting at them. At the root of this sentiment is the simple idea that there is nothing inherently better or worse about people born in the same geographic area as I.

With that in mind, it is jarring how I reflexively respond internally to the recent outcry against U.S. immigration policy. People are (justly) moved to tears and anger over non-American children experiencing trauma at the hands of their government, but I can’t help but find myself thinking “what about actual American children who are going through this?”

As I noted above, American children separated from their parents deal with much of the same traumas as immigrant children, though they broadly occur within in different historical contexts. American children are subject to varying degrees of the structural issues underpinning their specific situations: suffocating economic inequality, institutionalized racism and all that these paradigms entail. The families arriving at our border contain in their very being the ongoing legacies of European colonialism, American imperialism, and more recently, neoliberal capitalism and its continuing devastation of the developing world.

Though every family separation is a veritable snowflake where no two are the same, similarities abound in the results. Some children will never find a stable home and, if they are not deported, age out of the system:

  • More than 23,000 children will age out of the US foster care system every year.
  • After reaching the age of 18, 20% of the children who were in foster care will become instantly homeless.
  • Only 1 out of every 2 foster kids who age out of the system will have some form of gainful employment by the age of 24.
  • There is less than a 3% chance for children who have aged out of foster care to earn a college degree at any point in their life.
  • 7 out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21.
  • The percentage of children who age out of the foster care system and still suffer from the direct effects of PTSD: 25%.

More generally, childhood trauma related to separation increases

the risk of alcohol use by age 14 and illicit drug use by age 15. Childhood trauma also contributed to the likelihood of adolescent pregnancies and adolescent suicide attempts.

But the story doesn’t end there. ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] were also found to be associated with multiple adverse outcomes in adulthood, such as cardiovascular disease, liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide attempts, alcohol dependence, marital problems, intravenous drug use and many more.

If there is one common thread to many of the preventable diseases we face in the U.S., why are we not paying closer attention?

An excellent question really, but with an obvious answer [1]. Victims of child abuse and neglect are mostly poor and disproportionately children of color. We as a society don’t really give a fuck about them, unless they rise from their racially and economically segregated neighborhoods to become worthy of notice and acclaim – perhaps as an athlete, entertainer, or business mogul. Then we can collectively valorize the Horatio Alger-like elements of their life – in the land of the free and the home of the brave anyone can make it if they just work hard enough.

Just as good, if not better, is when a white family shepherds them to the promised land. Consider the popularity of The Blind Side. Briefly, the movie is based on the true story of Michael Oher, adopted by a saintly white family after bouncing around foster homes, and eventually making it to the NFL. This is widely thought of as a feel-good story, at least for white people who relish any opportunity to view themselves as benevolent forces for good.

Or perhaps they’ll commit crimes and become noteworthy that way. Perhaps, their childhood will provide context for whatever it is that they’ve done. But whatever the crime is will almost always override their upbringing. Whether that’s fair or not depends on the situation and the eye of the beholder.

***

In the end, it’s hard not to feel that the advice from my dream rings hollow, even if there’s a degree of utility to it. Because the social/economic/political systems that these families exist within have set them up to fail and are ill equipped at mitigating the fallout. The well-to-do within those systems are likely to feel the consequences of those failures – perhaps by tax dollar, perhaps by crime. Perhaps they’ll feel rage, and perhaps that misguided rage will lead to health problems.

The following is particularly apt:

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.

One should keep in mind the sheer breadth this sentiment encompasses: refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America fleeing violence; First Nations children of Canada; children in the enlightened social democracy of Norway; and, of course, children in the belly of the world-eating Leviathan that is modern-day techno-industrial society.


[1] I understand one of the reasons why: there is an unending churn of terrible things – contemporary and historical – in the world. With only a finite amount of time and energy to dedicate to learning about such things, it’s silly to think everyone will expose themselves to the same horrors as I. So, while I lament the (what I regard) as fact that people don’t give much thought to American child welfare, I get why this is.

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