What’s Wrong with Separating Children from their Parents?

What happens when the bond between parent and child is abruptly severed?

Posted Jul 09, 2018

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free imageb
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain, free imageb

I have an immediate and visceral response to the “zero tolerance" policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Regardless of the legal justification, something tells me that this is wrong.

My mind turns not to Romans 13 but to the story of Solomon.  Whereas the Apostle Paul emphasizes obedience to the law based on the authority of God, the wisdom of Solomon appeals to a common sense understanding of human behavior. 

Paul writes: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Never mind that the Presidency of the United States is an elected office—not one ordained or anointed by God—and that Congress, the lawmaking body of our country, is also made up of elected officials. In a democracy, we choose how to govern ourselves. The laws we make and enforce reflect our own values and judgment. 

The story of Solomon, which children of my generation learned regardless of our religious background, suggests another way to adjudicate a complex family matter.

Two women come before King Solomon to determine which of them should be acknowledged the mother of an infant that both lay claim to have borne. Each has recently been delivered of a son, but one of the babies has died. The first woman alleges that the other has substituted the dead child (in the middle of the night) for hers and claims the living son as her own. Solomon decrees that the baby should be cut in half, so that each woman will possess an equal part. The second woman pleads against this verdict, ceding her claim to her rival. Solomon, recognizing that the woman who protests the “legal” division of the child is its true mother, decides the case in her favor.

Why is this story so resonant? And why do most of us who have even a passing acquaintance with the Bible remember it so well? 

It has all the elements, of course, of a powerful narrative: gripping suspense, high emotional stakes, and a satisfying conclusion. But it also taps into a level of engagement that is deeply psychological.  

Most of us who hear this story agree with Solomon. The image of a baby cut in two violates our understanding of what is right and just. Solomon discerns who the “true mother” is and makes the appropriate decision.

What went missing in the recent “zero tolerance” decision that led to the separation of children from their parents is an understanding of what it means for the bond between parent and child to be abruptly severed.  While heart-rending for the grieving mother or father, such an experience is even more devastating for the child. 

Many have written about the traumatic nature of such a disruption and the many possible consequences: delays in brain development, behavioral problems, and lasting emotional harm. Megan Gunnar PhD., Director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, states: “When children are torn from their parents for prolonged periods of time it can create ‘toxic stress.’ Toxic stress, in turn, changes brain architecture. It increases the size of the amygdala, the hub of the fight or flight response…. This means that it is easier to trigger fight or flight and harder to dampen it. Toxic stress during brain development also impairs the brain circuits that allow us to control our own behavior so that we can keep doing what we are supposed in the face of distractions and temptations. (Star Tribune, June 12, 2018) Nim Tottenham, Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University adds: “On average, what we see is that this early experience seems to be a major risk factor for mental health problems later in life.” (Quoted by Melissa Healy in the LA Times, June 20, 2018)

But you don’t have to have a PhD to understand why separating children from their parents is wrong. Just recall an incident from your own childhood when you were temporarily separated from your mother or father or simply feared such a possibility. It is every child’s private nightmare. 

Here is an example of my own. 

When I was about seven years old, my Mom, Dad, two brothers and I made a weekend visit to Meramec Caverns near St. Louis, where I grew up. I’d never been in a cave before and felt both excited and scared. For one thing, it was as dark as night, and there was a narrow pathway beside an underground pool, where we had to walk single file. At one point, I lost sight of my parents and became terrified that they were too far ahead of me to notice if I fell off the path into the “bottomless lake,” as our guide described it. 

When you are that young, you depend on your parents to protect you and succumb easily to irrational fears. Just when I thought that I might be bumped into the lake by one of the large-bodied adults who surrounded me, my parents caught up with me from behind. They’d been watching over me all along! 

This incident is minor on the scale of human suffering, but it may help to illustrate how universal the fear of losing contact with those who love us can be for a child. I have never forgotten the anxiety I felt at the thought of losing my parents and can understand on this basis how much more terrifying it must be for a migrant child to be removed from its mother or father, with no understanding of what is happening, where it is going, or whether this nightmare experience will ever end.

Let us also not forget that moms and kids (the preponderance of migrants seeking asylum from violence in their own countries) pose no threat to us. They are hardly the “rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers” that President Trump seeks to deter. 

Instead, let each of us recall our own childhood memories of separation, our fears and anxieties about these, and apply the wisdom of Solomon to the reality of our present situation. What we know in our hearts is that the practice of separating children from their parents was and is just plain wrong.