June 11, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

A 6-year old little girl holding tight to her dad and quietly weeping.  A 3-year old boy wailing inconsolably.  A scared 10 year old boy trying to look brave when his mom is marched away.  These are the images I’m seeing and hearing about every day in the news (e.g., here, here, here, here, here.)

Effective April 6, 2018, the Trump administration is referring 100 percent of adults apprehended on the U.S.’s southwest border for criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice.  The result is thousands of migrant families being separated.  The Trump administration says it thinks its policy may have a deterrent effect.  I say it is a cruel experiment that is making children sick and will have long term adverse consequences for many of them.

Children who are experiencing trauma will often suffer physical and behavioral symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping, nightmares, emotional outbursts, trouble paying attention, and no interest in things they used to enjoy. The symptoms are often age specific.  In preschool children, for example, extreme stress may manifest in bed wetting or thumb sucking, while school age children may show aggression or withdraw from others. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child studies the impact of trauma on youngsters’ brains, including to their health as they age.  Trauma can cause developmental delays in language, cognition, and fine motor skills. Childhood trauma is also associated with psychiatric disorders in adulthood, including substance misuse, anxiety, and depression.

Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics denounced the Trump administration policy:

“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health.  In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children.

…We can and must remember that immigrant children are still children; they need our protection, not prosecution.”

As I was reading up on the health impacts of childhood trauma, I came across this:

“Trauma of various kinds can take an incredible toll on our children.  And trauma is not just a significant risk factor for mental health and substance use disorders, but for physical health challenges as well.”

That’s from Alex Azar, President Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.  Azar not only said it, he was speaking at a May 2018 town hall meeting, entitled “Helping Children Who Experience Trauma.”  I’m not making this up.

What does Azar think when he sees the images of migrant children and parents in U.S. custody?  Does he not consider it traumatic?  When he said trauma can take an incredible toll on our children, what did he mean? Only U.S. citizen children? The trauma being inflicted on these infants and youngsters is just collateral damage to Trump and company.

Today, we see snapshots of the harm on the faces of the crying and scared children.  If they don’t receive adequate support, some, if not many, will suffer long-term consequences.  Those long term scars may be invisible but will be painful. This policy is disgusting and cruel.

I agree with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). Separating children from parents is a new low for the Trump administration.

[Update 6/18/2018: The American Public Health Association and Trust for America’s Health issued a statement concerning the health consequences for children of the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy. It reads in part: “We urge the administration to immediately stop the practice of separating immigrant children and parents and ensure those who have been separated are rapidly reunited, to ensure the health and well-being of these children.”




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