Facing Facts: Kids and the Traumatic Effects of the Family Separation Policy


“They’re kind of with a dazed look. They’re – have a frightened, scared face. The children are clinging to their parents, and they also look scared….It’s hard to see these looks on these kids’ faces and these parents’ faces. It’s almost like the loss of hope. And, if you lose hope, that is, like, well, what else do you have left?” The description that Caren Barrientos, Regional Director of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, gave of parent reunifications while speaking with Michel Martin on Saturday, July 28th’s All Things Considered is not the one we would expect. Barrientos and her organization welcomed 370 parents and children affected by the ‘zero-tolerance’ border policy and gave them temporary shelter during the final court-ordered week of family reunification in July.

Basically, there’s no trust. Although some families have been reunited (roughly 1,442 children and their parents), most of them are nervous, distraught and fearful. Barrientos described the kids as “clingy”; some of them are “nervous sick” and some have head lice. She does concede, however, that once the reunited families have landed in their destinations and returned to their families, they do call her organization to thank them and to express how grateful they are that Lutheran Social Services was honest and sent them where they were promised.

None of this is unusual or unexpected. Being separated from a family member, especially under dubious circumstances or at the hand of government officials, is harmful, especially for children. Dr. Kirsten Ellingsen, child psychologist, mom, and Shana’s longtime friend, points out that separation from a parent has “immediate and long-term consequences — they are cognitive, [and effect] social-emotional development, physical health, mental health, relationships and attachment.” Not only do children face long-term developmental problems, but they’re also susceptible to toxic stress as a result of the trauma and their experience.

“In every county in New Jersey, when a youth is removed from their parents or caregivers, a children’s mobile crisis worker has to go out within 72 hours to evaluate the child and see if they need services,” said James Howell, a mental health professional who worked in New Jersey and was a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, underscoring how dire the effects of being separated from a primary caregiver are. New Jersey is a model in the country for psychological services, basing much of their research on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, a set of questions that tallies harmful childhood experiences in order to determine the risk for health problems later in life.

“Regardless of the amount of time of the separation, the child will face long-term consequences such as substance abuse, psychological distress and other medical conditions,” Howell added.

Even though the Trump administration reversed course on family separation at the border on June 20, there still was no mechanism in place to reunite families, and it coincided with the Justice Department’s attempts to overturn the Flores Settlement. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee of Los Angeles denied the “tortured” request, which would have allowed children to be held indefinitely as opposed to for up to only 20 days. However, the situation continues to be one of chaos, and effects on the families are life-changing.

Despite the June 20 order from U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California to reunify the child victims of the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, the government has neglected to meet any of the 3 deadlines. Children age 5 and under were ordered to be reunified by July 10, while July 26 was the deadline imposed for the remaining 2,550 plus kids to join their caregivers. Judge Sabraw gave the administration until Thursday, August 2 to submit plans for reuniting the remaining children. As of Friday, there were nearly 600 kids living with sponsors or in foster care because they could not be reunited in time for the most recent July 26 deadline. In a conference between the Justice Department and the ACLU (who successfully brought the lawsuit to end family separation on the souther border), Judge Sabraw made it clear that he was not impressed; he referred to Justice’s argument that the ACLU should use their resources to reunite the 500 children whose parents had already been deported as “disappointing.”

Judge Sabraw intimated that the government needs to get their act together and find a way to reunite the families. In an interview with Don Gonyea on Saturday’s All Things Considered, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, declared that “the ultimate goal is to reunite these families” and that it’s the government’s job to do so. While the ACLU will do everything they can to help, they need the government to provide accurate information, including phone numbers and locations of the parents.

The situation is chaotic. The federal government claims that over 100 parents of the remaining children (roughly 500-700, depending on the source) waived their parental rights prior to being deported, even though most advocates argue that it’s unlikely the adults understood what they were signing — if they actually signed anything. Furthermore, roughly 90 to 95 percent of the parents already deported are from Honduras or Guatemala, meaning that if they live in rural areas and/or speak indigenous languages, they would need translators to understand Spanish. Gelernt also highlights that 94 or 95 parents were deported after Judge Sabraw’s order to halt family separations at the border. Finally, there is a small number of children who do not want to join their parents if it means they’ll have to go to family detention centers.

“The reality is, for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child, and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.”  U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California

On June 20, Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, the President of the American Psychological Association, (the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States) penned a letter underscoring the fact that “Decades of psychological research shows that children separated from their parents can suffer severe psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior and decline in educational achievement. The longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the child’s symptoms of anxiety and depression become.”

What will happen as a result of this trauma? In addition to the numerous consequences listed below, there are children who may end up staying in the U.S., even without their parents, and might end up stereotyped for the behavior they exhibit at school or resentful of the government that tore their familial relationships asunder. In addition to the long-term cognitive, behavioral and emotional effects resulting from being ripped apart from their parents unjustly, children will also suffer as a result of the treatment they’re enduring while being detained. Judge Dolly Gee of Los Angeles determined that the government is violating the Flores settlement, and has ordered an independent monitor to oversee the detainment of minors, who are reportedly facing harmful conditions ranging from spoiled food and foul-smelling water to being forcibly medicated and enduring sexual abuse.

Even though this humanitarian atrocity, in which nearly 3,000 children, their parents and their families have been traumatized indefinitely, is falling out of the news cycle, we’re committed to conveying just how devastating the fallout of the ‘zero-tolerance’ family separation policy is. Keep reading to understand how the traumatic stress of abandonment manifests, what the experts are saying, how you can help, and what’s been in the news.

What Trauma in Preschool-Age Children Looks Like

  • Separation anxiety or clinginess towards teachers or primary caregivers
  • Regression in previously mastered stages of development (e.g., baby talk or bedwetting/toileting accidents)
  • Lack of developmental progress (e.g., not progressing at same level as peers)
  • Re-creating the traumatic event (e.g., repeatedly talking about, “playing” out, or drawing the event)
  • Difficulty at naptime or bedtime (e.g., avoiding sleep, waking up, or nightmares)
  • Increased somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, overreacting to minor bumps and bruises)
  • Changes in behavior (e.g., appetite, unexplained absences, angry outbursts, decreased attention, withdrawal)
  • Over- or under-reacting to physical contact, bright lighting, sudden movements, or loud sounds (e.g., bells, slamming doors, or sirens)
  • Increased distress (unusually whiny, irritable, moody)
  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others
  • Worry about recurrence of the traumatic event
  • New fears (e.g., fear of the dark, animals, or monsters)
  • Statements and questions about death and dying

What Trauma in Elementary School Students Looks Like

  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others (more clingy with teacher or parent)
  • Worry about recurrence of violence
  • Increased distress (unusually whiny, irritable, moody)
  • Changes in behavior:
    • Increase in activity level
    • Decreased attention and/or concentration
    • Withdrawal from others or activities
    • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
    • Absenteeism
  • Distrust of others, affecting how children interact with both adults and peers
  • A change in ability to interpret and respond appropriately to social cues
  • Increased somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, overreaction to minor bumps and bruises)
  • Changes in school performance
  • Recreating the event (e.g., repeatedly talking about, “playing” out, or drawing the event)
  • Over- or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements
  • Statements and questions about death and dying
  • Difficulty with authority, redirection, or criticism
  • Re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares or disturbing memories during the day)
  • Hyperarousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, tendency to be easily startled)
  • Avoidance behaviors (e.g., resisting going to places that remind them of the event)
  • Emotional numbing (e.g., seeming to have no feeling about the event)

What Trauma in High School Students Looks Like

  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others
  • Worry about recurrence or consequences of violence
  • Changes in behavior:
    • Withdrawal from others or activities
    • Irritability with friends, teachers, events
    • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
    • Change in academic performance
    • Decreased attention and/or concentration
    • Increase in activity level
    • Absenteeism
    • Increase in impulsivity, risk-taking behavior  
  • Discomfort with feelings (such as troubling thoughts of revenge)
  • Increased risk for substance abuse
  • Discussion of events and reviewing of details
  • Negative impact on issues of trust and perceptions of others
  • Over- or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements
  • Repetitive thoughts and comments about death or dying (including suicidal thoughts, writing, art, or notebook covers about violent or morbid topics, internet searches)
  • Heightened difficulty with authority, redirection, or criticism
  • Re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares or disturbing memories during the day)
  • Hyperarousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, tendency to be easily startled)
  • Avoidance behaviors (e.g., resisting going to places that remind them of the event)
  • Emotional numbing (e.g., seeming to have no feeling about the event)

Letters on the Psychological Harm of Separating Families

The science of family separation and how it can harm children – Op Ed in The Hill by Dr. Katherine Yun, a faculty member of PolicyLab and pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatrics and the Refugee Health Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Why Detaining Children is Harmful – unicef USA

Thousands of Older Children Also Were Separated at the Border. What Happens to Them? – David Rubin, MD, MSCE, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development – the National Symposium on Early Childhood Science and Policy, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

NASP Calls for End to Policy Separating Families at the Border – National Association of School Psychologists

Statement by Center Director Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. on Separation of Families – Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

Supporting Children and Parents Affected by the Trauma of Separation -a joint publication from Child Trends and the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families.

Disrupting young lives: How detention and deportation affect US-born children of immigrants – American Psychological Association

How to Help Children and Families Separated at the Border

Below is a list of organizations who are working through the legal system to mitigate this crisis, as well as links on how you can help.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND): “KIND staff and our pro bono attorney partners at law firms, corporations, and law schools nationwide represent unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings. Together, we ensure that no child stands in court alone.” Donate, Help or Learn More

CARA (A collaboration of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the American Immigration Lawyers Association) CARA’s aim has been twofold: to ensure that detained children and their mothers receive competent, pro bono representation and to end the practice of family detention entirely by leading aggressive advocacy and litigation efforts to challenge unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies. Volunteer or Donate.

Texas Civil Rights Project: TCRP traditionally fights for voting rights, criminal justice reform, and racial and economic justice. They are currently fighting for 381 clients to be reunited with their families. Join, Help or Donate. The Texas Civil Rights Project also updates their FAQ frequently, if you’d like current information on how family reunification is going.

RAICES: The largest immigration legal services provider in Texas. RAICES has been working on this issue for years. They have two key goals at this time: 1) directly fund the bond necessary to get parents out of detention and reunited with their children while awaiting court proceedings 2) ensure legal representation for EVERY child in Texas’ immigration courts. Take action and/or Donate.

Together Rising: “100% of what Together Rising receives from every personal donation goes directly to an individual, family, or cause in need – not one penny we receive from individual donation goes to administration costs, unless a donor specifically authorizes that use.” They have a plethora of ways to give, plus a well-researched list of how you can help in other ways.

*See Shana’s earlier post for more suggestions on how to help. On July 23, Elle magazine also published this list.

The Effects of Family Separation in the News

The U.S. detention centers are also set up in a way that can adversely affect kids. Charles Nelson is a developmental neuroscientist at Harvard University. And since 2000, he’s been studying children growing up in orphanages in Romania…..Nelson has studied the Romanian kids as they’ve grown up. He says the orphans’ brains look different. They have lower IQs. Now, most of the remaining children spent years living this way. But other research shows that even short separation can have a lasting impact.” Rhitu Chatterjee

The other thing that stood out was the lies that were told to parents and children about the separation. So for example, a parent was told, we’re going to – you’re going to go to court; leave your child here; you’ll see your child when you come back. They come back. The child is gone. They don’t see the child for a couple of months. The child is told, your parent has abandoned you. You will never see them again. That is just unconscionable. So that is what we saw from the facilities that we went to.” Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California

And to further compound the unabashed cruelty of what the government has done to thousands of warehoused infants and toddlers is the enforcement of misguided polices that prohibit physical contact with the youngest detainees—even when the best “treatment” for persistent anxiety, weeping, sleep difficulties, language regression, social withdrawal and other symptoms of severe stress is to calm the child by holding or hugging.” Irwin Redlener, president emeritus and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, professor of pediatrics and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and the author of The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for Twenty-First-Century America (Columbia University Press, 2017)

The problems are pervasive in facilities all along the Southwest border….This includes inadequate food. It includes enforced dehydration. It includes sleep deprivation because children do not have mats to sleep on or blankets,” Schey said. “It includes unsanitary conditions because children do not have soap. They do not have towels. They do not have access to basic toiletries.” Peter Schey of The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law

Yes, children. We have signed retainers with them. We are actively representing them, but we don’t actually know their whereabouts. Furthermore, as part of our representation, we need to advise and consult with our clients. And it’s almost impossible to advise a child without being provided any information from the government about what their plan is for these children. Are they planning on reuniting them with the separated parent? Are they planning on deporting them? Are they planning on sending them to a different sponsor in the U.S.? We have no idea. Oftentimes, we aren’t given any information. I wake up one day, and I get an email from someone that says this kid has now been released. Hopefully, we’ll figure out where they went.” Priya Konings, an attorney with KIND, Kids in Need of Defense

We’re going to end with this final story about how reunification is proceeding, from Priya Konings (above), because it paints such an honest portrait about what’s happening to our children at this point, during what will likely become one of our nation’s darkest hours in modern history.

“We had two siblings who were sent to the border to reunify with their mother, who was in detention. These two siblings really relied on each other. There was an older one who was 14 and a younger one who was 9. Instead of sending them together, the government decided to separate them and send them at different times. They sent them to the facility. And they moved mom before the kids got there. And when the kids got there, they told the kids that they had deported mom. And the kids still aren’t together at this point. The kids are in complete panic mode. They call a relative and tell the relative I don’t know where I am or where my mom is. KIND tracks down the relative. And we’re in panic mode not knowing how to help these kids. Eventually, they track mom down, who actually hasn’t been deported. And then they reunify the kids – the two kids – one by one with mom in a family detention center days later. At this point, the mom, the kids, everybody’s completely traumatized. And in fact, we still don’t even have contact with our clients. So this is not how we envisioned reunification to be happening. But it’s been disastrous to say the least in many situations.” Priya Konings

This isn’t over, and there’s still much to be done. United we stand, divided we fall.


P.S. A huge thank you to Dr. Kirsten Ellingsen for providing us with so many resources from experts in psychology and childhood trauma. Also, a big shout-out to my (now former) neighbor James Howell for letting me disrupt one of his last Philly dinners to get quotes. Best of luck in Florida, and perhaps you and Dr. Ellingsen will work together in the future.

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  1. Thank you for this. So much great information here. This whole thing is so vast and heartbreaking and horrible that it can be overwhelming. The organization of this info will be so helpful to a lot of people, I think, even if they’re not commenting. I hope, anyway.

  2. With summer and news cycles and everything else it’s easy to have lost focus on this. But this is excellent coverage and an incredibly important reminder that we are still very much in the thick of this very disturbing event.

    Thanks for the update on ways we can contribute. It seems so inadequate, but it also feels good to *do something.*

  3. Alexis, your article reads like something out of the Atlantic – every line is useful and meaningful and I feel smarter when I reach the end. Thanks for putting this together, and I look forward to seeing more from you on the blog!
    One point I want to raise when I see information about family separations in the US is that because these 3000+ families are on our soil, they are and should be near to our hearts and our efforts. But the refugee crisis in Africa and Europe right now is literally 1000 times worse, and when we learn strategies from our volunteerism here, we should remember that the problem is far from solved, and apply our education anywhere in the world we can!

  4. Thank you for posting this. These stories are so heartbreaking and it’s important for the moms in America to take a stand!

  5. Thank you, Alexis (and TME), for being brave enough to take a stand. I live in a red state where even the most well-meaning moms are ignoring this crisis altogether – and I know it can feel like a risk to stand up for something that could potentially alienate readers. Thanks for doing it anyway – and with such comprehensive research, no less!

  6. We are so heartened that you all have found this post insightful and resourceful. I myself greatly appreciate your kind comments, even though it’s difficult to say ‘thank you’ when it comes to such a heavy subject that we wish we didn’t need to cover in the first place — and we do NEED to cover it — but we wish it wasn’t happening in the first place. Thank you, Dear Readers, for your continued support. Let’s keep the Light on the children. xo

  7. Great work, Alexis and TME! I know you’ve received some critical responses from covering this issue in the past, and I’m glad that you haven’t let that slow you down from shining the light on the harm being done to our children – with our tax dollars! As moms, as humans, we must continue to be outraged about this, support and assist the organizations doing heroic work to re-unite the families in the face of government stonewalling, and most importantly, hold all those involved in perpetrating this atrocity accountable.

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