A Change in Policy is Not Enough: Why Swift Reunification of Families is Imperative

By: Dana Asby, CEI Intern

President Trump has retreated on the strategy of using an inhumane policy of separating children from their families at the border in an attempt to gain power at the negotiating table with Congress (Scherer & Dawsey, 2018); however, about 2,300 children remain in detention centers without their families (Shear Goodnough, & Haberman, 2018). Human rights activists and compassionate people around the world breathed a sigh of relief at the news that no more children will be added to the voices screaming out for their parents in anguish. While time limits have been set to make reunification a priority, it is unclear what systems, if any, were set up to track children and facilitate reunification. It is uncertain how long the children who have been ripped from their parents’ sides will remain in centers where their emotional needs are not being met.

Emotional Support in ICE Detention Centers

While some administrators attempt to reassure the public that the standards of these detention centers can be higher than the living conditions of the countries from which these children came, inspections of these centers tell a different tale. When asked whether the pictures of children being housed in cages and the audio recordings of crying kids could be considered child abuse, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the centers: ‘We have high standards. We give them meals. We give them education. We give them medical care’ (Blake, 2018). An investigation into the living conditions of four of the largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers left investigators alarmed and calling for ‘immediate attention’ to correct the poor bathroom conditions, long waits for medical care, and poor food quality (Barros, 2018).

Regardless of the condition of these facilities, the emotional support being provided by ICE officers who are not trained to work with children, much less children currently experiencing a trauma, is insufficient. A pediatrician recently visited a detention center in Texas where a large number of immigrant children are being held and observed frustrated workers not allowed to comfort children in distress because of a rule put in place that workers could not touch the children (Phillips, 2018). Developmental psychologists and medical doctors agree that ‘if children are unnecessarily and traumatically removed from their parents, their physical and mental health and well-being will suffer’ (MacKenzie, Bosk, & Zeanah, 2017). To begin to repair the damage being wrecked on these young children’s bodies, minds, and spirits, love and affection are necessary treatments. The most appropriate people to deliver this needed attention through physical touch, warm and comforting tones, and reassuring words are these children’s family members. In the meantime, allowing shelter workers to pick up crying infants, hug sobbing toddlers, or give playful high fives to pre-teens would provide some level of crucial comfort

A Lesson from the Past

We have seen what happens if children are left mostly alone, untouched, unstimulated, and without a consistent primary caregiver. In Romania in the 1990’s, an unfortunate birth policy enacted by the Romanian government resulted in nearly 170,000 unwanted children sent to underfunded, understaffed orphanages where lack of human interaction led to irreparable damage to brain development (Nelson, Furtado, Fox, & Zeanah, 2009). As discussed in a previous post in this series , chronic stress associated with trauma can cause an over activation of the stress response system, flooding the body with cortisol and causing higher-than-normal levels of anxiety. When this stress is sustained over time, damage can be done that is difficult to reverse (MacKenzie, Bosk, & Zeanah, 2017).

A randomized control trial compared cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes of Romanian orphans matched with foster parents, children who remained in the care of the orphanages, and those in Romania who had never been institutionalized. They found that the children who spent their entire childhoods in these emotionally unresponsive institutional environments had the poorest cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. While the children placed in foster care showed improvements from their time in the orphanage as well as in comparison to their peers who were not given primary caregivers to offer love and attention, their outcomes were not as positive as those children who had never been separated from their parents (Nelson, Zeanah, Fox, Marshall, Smyke, & Guthrie, 2007).

It’s clear that separating children from families has long term effects and is not a moral solution to an immigration ‘problem.’ While we can be grateful that no more children will be taken from their families’ care, we must press our government to change their policies within centers where thousands of children are being held so that they receive the warm affection they need to alleviate the effects of the chronic stress they are experiencing.


Barros, A. (2017, December 15) US inspectors alarmed over conditions at immigrant detention
centers. VOA News website.

Blake, A. (2018, June 19. Kirstjen Nielsen’s mighty struggle to explain separating families at the
border, annotated. The Washington Post, online.

MacKenzie, M.J., Bosk, E., Zeanah, C.H. (2017). Separating families at the
border–Consequences for children’s health and well-being. New England Journal of
Medicine, 376, 24, 2314-2315.

Nelson, C.A., Furtado, E.A., Fox, N.A., & Zeanah, C.H. The depraved human brain. (2009).
American Scientist, 97, 222-229.

Nelson, C.A., Zeanah, C.H., Fox, N.A., Marshall, P.J., Smyke, A.T., Guthrie, D. (2007).
Cognitive recovery in socially deprived young children: The Bucharest Early Intervention
Project. Science, 318, 1937-1940.

Phillips, K. (2018, June 16). ‘˜America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter
for migrant children. The Washington Post, online edition.

Scherer, M. and Dawsey, J. (2018, June 15). Trump cites as a negotiating tool his policy of
separating immigrant children from their parents. The Washington Post, online edition.

Shear, M.D., Goodnough, S., and Haberman, M. (2018, June 20). Trump retreats on separating
families, but thousands may remain apart. The New York Times, online edition.


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