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Zero-Compassion Policy and Parent-Child Separation

Parent-child separation is cruel, unconscionable, and inflicts permanent harm.

As any parent knows, small children experience even brief separations from parents as highly stressful. Prolonged separations inflict lasting trauma and catastrophic neurological damage (Wan 2018). Yet under their “zero tolerance” policy, the Trump administration has forcibly separated well over 2,000 children from their mothers and fathers (Jordan 2018; Schallhorn 2018). This policy, better dubbed "zero-compassion," can result in deporting parents without their children and with no clear path for family reunification (Jordan 2018).

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, non-partisan family research organizations (such as the Council for Contemporary Families), and religious leaders have all condemned the separation of children and parents at the U.S. border (CCF 2018; Green 2018; Jordan 2018; Miller 2018; O’Reilly 2018). Why? Because needlessly taking a child away from a loving parent and placing them in institutional care is abusive. Such separations are acutely stressful to children (if you doubt that, listen to this recording), do lasting psychological and neurological damage to children (Rutter 1971; Paksarian 2015; Suarez-Orozco 2011; Veijola 2004; Woodward et al 2000; Wan 2018), and are heartbreaking for children and parents (Jordan 2018; Miller 2018; Thompson 2018; Wan 2018).

Academic researchers have long documented the effects of parent-child separations (Rutter 1971; Paksarian 2015; Veijola 2004; Woodward et al 2000), including separations due to immigration (Suarez-Orozco 2011). These separations do severe and lasting damage. Children subjected to separations suffer a flood of stress hormones, killing neurons and permanently stunting brain development (Wan 2018). They are at higher risk for antisocial behavior and a range of psychological disorders in adulthood (Rutter 1971; Paksarian 2015; Veijola 2004; Woodward et al 2000). These effects may be especially pronounced for younger children (Woodward et al 2000; Wan 2018).

But it should not require an M.D. or a Ph.D. to understand that separating children from their parents is wrong. Anyone who has ever been or known a child should recognize the pain, fear, heartache, and lasting trauma that the U.S. government is inflicting on children. As a parent, I cannot help imagining my own child ripped from my arms, knowing that he would be sobbing, crying out for me in a mass detention with other devastated children. Even as an imagined pain, it is a pain I would never chose to inflict upon anyone.

Reasonable people can disagree over many immigration policies, but this is not one of them. Zero-tolerance policy is not about law enforcement: Losing one’s child is a disproportionate punishment for a misdemeanor offense, and the consequences of parent-child separation are tantamount to child abuse. The wellbeing of children should supersede partisan differences. Americans claim to care about children and family, but as long as we rip apart children and parents at the U.S. border, these claims are hypocritical.

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Council for Contemporary Families (CCF). 2018.

Green, Emma. 2018. “Religious Leaders Condemn Family Separations—but Not Necessarily Trump.” The Atlantic.…

Jordan, Mirium. 2018. “'I Can't Go Without My Son,' a Mother Pleaded as She Was Deported to Guatemala.” NY Times.

Miller, Devin. 2018. “AAP a leading voice against separating children, parents at border.” AAP News.

O’Reilly, Kevin B. 2018. “Doctors oppose policy that splits kids from caregivers at border.” AMA News.…

Paksarian, D., et al. 2015. “A population-based study of the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder associated with parent-child separation during development.” Psychological Medicine 45(13):2825-2837.

Rutter, Michael. 1971. “Parent-Child Separation: Psychological Effects on the Children.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 12: 233-260.

Schallhorn, Kaitlyn. 2018. “What Trump's 'zero-tolerance' immigration policy means for children separated from families at border” Fox News.…

Suarez-Orozco, C., et al. 2011. “I Felt Like My Heart Was Staying Behind: Psychological Implications of Family Separations & Reunifications for Immigrant Youth.” Journal of Adolescent Research 26(2):222-257.

Thompson, Ginger. 2018. “Listen to Children Who’ve Just Been Separated From Their Parents at the Border.” ProPublica.…

Veijola, J., et al. 2004. “Parental separation at birth and depression in adulthood: a long-term follow-up of the Finnish Christmas Seal Home Children.” Psychological Medicine 34(2):357-362.

Wan, William. 2018. “What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’” The Washington Post.…

Woodward et al. 2000. “Timing of parental separation and attachment to parents in adolescence: Results of a prospective study from birth to age 16.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62:162-174.

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