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Inhumane Treatment of Children at Our Nation's Border

What can we do about it?

Ten years ago, when I first became a contributing blogger for Psychology Today and was assigned the topic of Overcoming Child Abuse, I never dreamed that one day the most horrific child abuse I would feel morally accountable to write about would be that of my own country torturing babies and children of all ages. Facebook, Twitter, major newspapers, and TV news programs have been replete with horrifying, gut-wrenching reports and photographs of terrorized children and parents being torn from each other's arms; of imprisoning them in cages; of depriving them of basic needs; of children being sexually abused, and some even dying.

Mary Engelbreit
Source: Mary Engelbreit

Scott Simon’s, June 22 opinion piece for entitled The Filthy and Uncomfortable Circumstances of Detained Migrant Children listed the deplorable living conditions he witnessed at a detention site in Texas: children sleeping on the cold concrete floor; severely overcrowded spaces; lights glaring overhead which made it hard to sleep; limited access to bathrooms; no way to brush their teeth; no soap; no towels. In last week's NYTimes article entitled There's a Stench': Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center, Caitlin Dickerson described the scene witnessed by lawyers who visited a border station in Clint, Texas: children as young as 7 or 8 in clothes caked with snot and tears caring for infants they have just met; toddlers without diapers relieving themselves in their pants; teenage mothers wearing clothes stained with breast milk. Most of the children haven’t had a bath since they arrived, and the abuse and neglect goes further. The Guardian reported in a February 27, 2019 article, that almost 5,000 complaints of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in US custody have been filed over the last four years.

You may wonder what the psychological toll of all this torture of body, mind, and spirit will be for the children who survive. I certainly do. Ashley Fetters, in response to reports that adults weren't giving the children much attention and so older children were trying to take care of the little ones, wrote an article in The Atlantic this week entitled Children Cannot Parent Other Children in an effort to describe the psychological hazards of just this dynamic. She points out that children have needs that they can't fulfill themselves. They need people who acquire and prepare food for them and look out for their safety and cleanliness; people who care for them emotionally, and tend to them when they're sick; people who support them through tough times. We're not hearing reports that any of that is happening. Instead, we hear one heartbreaking story after another. We are bearing witness to the torture of children and their parents.

What can we do about it?

1. Acknowledge what we've witnessed of this humanitarian crisis and the impact it's having on our subjective experience.

2. Share our reactions with friends.

3. Create a community of compassionate witnessing with a schedule of regular meeting times for members to process their reactions and set goals. Acts of compassionate witnessing unlock us from the paralysis of helplessness and often include expressions of anguish and/or commitment through art. For example, friends of mine who live near Washington DC have been expressing their anguish about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School December 14, 2012, by demonstrating for gun control in front of the White House every Friday since then. Another example, this one an expression of commitment through art, is Pinwheels of Prevention, which occurs during April, Child Abuse Prevention Month. Pinwheels are a symbol of childhood, and the color blue is a reminder to fight for the protection of children. Towns that plant a garden of blue pinwheels by city hall, or by its schools, churches, parks, etc. reflect the community’s support for the prevention of child abuse every day, as citizens are reminded over and over again of its importance. Another example of commitment through art that I have appreciated is some of the work of artist Mary Engelbreit, which I've noticed on Instagram (@maryengelbreit) and on her website ( The photo on this blog is the artwork of Mary Engelbreit that she posted on Instagram this week. She comments in her posting that she is fighting against "the normalization of pure evil." and suggests that one way to do it is to support only companies and candidates who exhibit moral backbone. For that reason she is boycotting Wayfair (@wayfair) because they're selling supplies to the Trump Internment Camps.

4. Take action. Contact Congress and tell them this humanitarian crisis needs to stop. Plead with your senators and representatives to do whatever they can to cease this torture of children. Write letters. I was told by the close friend of a congressional staff member that the impact of letters is much more significant than phone calls and emails. The impact of reams of letters on their desks could be huge. So get busy. Write and mail those letters. Encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Even adolescents and children who have heard about what's going on can participate. Begin a letter-writing campaign in your neighborhood, in your church, in your office. Make it a daily activity, or weekly.

While letters are many times more effective than phone calls, phone calls are still important too. Telephone apps like Capital Call, Countable, and Stance enable us to easily contact our Senators and members of the House of Representatives. Download one on your phone and call them every day, beginning right now. Share these apps with your friends, too.

5. Contribute money to an organization that is in a position to bring front line assistance. Here are links to two reputable ones that I’m aware of :

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