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Military families can teach us about the cost of family separations

White House Chief of Staff and retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Kelly probably wasn’t thinking about military families when he defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents when they arrive at the border. But maybe he should have been.  

General Kelly minimized the impacts, saying, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Our nation’s military families know that separations and reunions of parents and children are profoundly challenging even when they are opted into, anticipated, and supported. Military families can teach us a lot about the cost of family separations, and understanding this cost demands that we stand against the use of family separations as a deterrent. 

{mosads}Over the past five years, in the course our research, we’ve talked to dozens of military-connected parents of young children about their experiences of family separation due to deployment. Their accounts highlight the resilience and coping abilities of service members and their families. But they also demonstrate the tremendous toll of extended separations.


Parents describe intensive efforts to make plans and prepare their children prior to deployment. They offer many examples of how separation affects their children: loss of a sense of safety and security, difficulty understanding the parent’s extended absence and accepting alternative caregivers, fear for their parent’s safety, increased emotional and behavioral problems. It’s also painful for parents.  

They talk about high levels of stress and awareness of the moments and milestones they’re missing. They share their worry about their children’s wellbeing and care arrangements, and how their children will manage their grief and fear. 

Military parents tell us that despite the joy of reunification, great challenges remain when children reunite with their parents after a separation. They describe re-establishing relationships, roles, and routines as an extended and complex process. The process is even harder when family members are experiencing trauma symptoms, or when a very young child responds to their returned parent as though they’re a stranger.  

For some, the experience of relationship disruption lasts far into the future. Parents speak of continuing awareness that their relationship with their child is changed, the hard and sustained work required to reestablish closeness, and children who remain fearful that their parent will disappear again.

 Deployment is a time of great stress for deploying service members and their families, but not all aspects of the experience are stressful for everyone. Careful planning and strong supports help to ease these transitions. Usually, children remain in a familiar home with a parent or other loved and trusted caregiver, and daycare or school provides reliable continuity. And when service members return, the U.S. military is invested in providing support for families as they reconnect and strengthen relationships.

The conditions of separation for children and parents separated at the border are vastly different. Separation is abrupt and involuntary. The context instills fear, as Customs and Border Patrol agents take charge and separate families. Agents put parents in detention facilities, and turn children over to the Department of Health and Human Services for placement.

Parents have no input into their children’s placement. Agents give children and parents little to no information about one another or when they will be able to see each other. These circumstances are devastating for all involved, and especially so for young children who rely on parents to help them regulate their emotional experiences and reactions and who do not have the capacity to understand what’s happening to them.

The trauma of being separated may pile on top of other trauma experienced in their home country and during the journey to the United States.

The insights of military families should inform our response to immigrant families who arrive at our borders. Military families know and can teach us a great deal about family separations, confronting challenges and transitions, and the work it takes to maintain relationships and promote children’s wellbeing.

Among the insights they have to share are the importance of keeping things as predictable as possible for children, the critical role of parents in supporting children’s adjustment during times of stress, and the value of social support for both individual family members and the family unit as a whole.

The current use of family separation as a deterrent to undocumented immigration is completely out of step with these principles. General Kelly has stated that family separation is “a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.” It is time to end this practice now.

Tova Walsh is an assistant professor of Social Work and Affiliate of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at University of Wisconsin-Madison.Katherine Rosenblum is a clinical professor and co-director of the Women and Infants Mental Health Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

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