Thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the U.S. border could face significant health issues in the short and long term, health experts warn.
The impact of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which sends parents to detention centers and kids to government-run shelters, could extend far past the initial trauma of separation.
“The toxic stress resulting from being separated or ripped away from your parents can result in mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University.
“But also, down the line, there is evidence that it contributes to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even cancer.”
The Trump administration implemented the zero tolerance policy at the border earlier this year in response to a rising number of arrests there.
Adults are incarcerated and charged with illegally entering the U.S., while children are sent to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement until they can be placed with sponsors.
Previous administrations under both Democratic and Republican presidents had kept families together for processing unless there were signs of abuse or other reasons for separation.
Between April 19 and the end of May, 1,995 minors were separated from their guardians at the southern border. The children stay in the shelters an average of 57 days, a spokesperson for the refugee resettlement office said.
Outrage over the policy has spread to the medical community, which warns that children can be severely impacted if they’re separated from their parents, family members or other adults and familiar faces they trust.
“Children leaving the chaos of their home countries should not be further traumatized by the U.S. government policy of separating children from their caregiver,” said American Medical Association Board Member Bobby Mukkamala.
“It’s inhumane and risks scarring children for the rest of their lives.”
The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are just three of the many health groups urging the administration to abandon the practice.
Research shows that the loss of a familial system puts children at a higher risk for health issues later in life, particularly mental illness.
“Children depend on their parents for safety and support. Any forced separation is highly stressful for children and can cause lifelong trauma, as well as an increased risk of other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” American Psychiatric Association President Altha Stewart said in a statement.
Separating children from their parents also places children at a “heightened risk” of experiencing what’s called “adverse childhood experiences,” said the American Public Health Association (APHA).
Research shows that there is a strong correlation between these experiences and leading causes of death, including cancer.
“Negative outcomes associated with adverse childhood events include some of society’s most intractable health issues: alcoholism, substance misuse, depression, suicide, poor physical health and obesity,” the APHA said.
Younger children are especially susceptible to harmful health effects of separation, said Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The younger a child is when the separation has occurred, the more detrimental it is to their brain and development,” she said.
Removing any child from the care of their parents can trigger high stress hormones and disrupt the development in brain architecture, potentially causing delays in speech and motor function.
They might also do poorly in school, experience behavioral health problems, fall into substance abuse and live in poverty.
“We need to stop this policy ASAP,” Kraft said.
“We need to get the children back with their families and begin the healing.”