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‘Continuous Trauma’: What It’s Like for Immigrant Kids Separated From Their Families

Reuniting children with their parents is a must — but right now they need lawyers, pediatricians, social workers, and therapists to help them cope

What happens to children once they are torn from their parents?

The separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border continues to provoke an outcry. The Trump administration’s decision to detain and criminally prosecute every adult who enters the U.S. without documentation has sent parents directly into the federal penal system, while their children are treated as “unaccompanied minors” and sent to shelters or into foster care. Even after public opposition led Donald Trump to order that families be detained together going forward, more than 2,000 children remain separated from their parents — and the Justice Department said Friday it “can’t commit” to meeting a court-ordered deadline of Tuesday for returning all children under five years old to their parents.

This spring, before the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” immigration policy but after it had already begun family separations, our team of scholars studied what happens to unaccompanied immigrant youth who have been separated from their parents. Afterwards, the children are placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which sends them to one of at least 100 facilities scattered across the country, ranging from privately run shelters to temporary government facilities, such as the one in Tornillo, Texas, where children have been seen sleeping in tents at night.

We were particularly concerned about the youngest children aged twelve and under, many of whom are placed by ORR into transitional foster care instead of a shelter. In March, we visited some of these temporary foster care facilities and interviewed twenty staff members who are responsible for them.

The transitional foster program model for unaccompanied immigrant children was created with older children in mind, as a brief stop on the way toward being placed with a sponsor (usually a relative) or a federally licensed foster home. Under the Trump zero tolerance policy, foster families and daytime facilities are instead being confronted with the challenge of caring for infants and very young children; they’ve had to stock diapers for babies, create quiet rooms for napping children, and reallocate program space to accommodate toddlers just learning to walk.

Staff reported to us that separated children arrive at their facilities in a state of shock. Some are traumatized and don’t speak. Some speak a Mayan language that the staff do not understand or are so young they have not learned to express themselves with words. One staff member described what she observed as evidence of “continuous trauma” in children who already have experienced violence and uncertainty in their home countries and en route to the border, only to find themselves unexpectedly taken from their parents once they arrive.

Not surprisingly, the children are often distraught because they miss their parents. Some cry and huddle in the corner when they arrive and show other signs of trauma. Staff members say they do what they can to comfort the children, but as one worker explained to us, these children have been “ripped apart from someone that gave them that sense of comfort, that could read to them, that could easily care for them and help them…where now they’re with strangers who have to relearn that. And it doesn’t matter how trained you are or how kid-friendly you are — even if you speak the same language, even if you understand the culture, it’s still a huge guessing game.

Program staff work to arrange regular phone calls between children and their parents in detention. However, tracking down parents and coordinating a call can be difficult, especially when parents can be moved from one federal facility to another without warning, and may not have money to make a call themselves. When they can be arranged, these phone calls are comforting for the children, but providers report that the children and parents are often quickly reduced to tears, with little time to talk — if the child is old enough to be able to communicate verbally at all.

At the same time that they’re trying to keep children connected to their parents, case managers and clinicians must also help them build trust with their transitional foster families and prepare them for what comes next — whether moving to a longer-term sponsor in the U.S. or repatriation. This swirl of possible caregivers can leave the children feeling confused, especially those who are too young to understand.

Some of the children have not seen a doctor or dentist recently — if at all — and case managers work with local providers to ensure they get necessary treatment. But this isn’t an easy process either. The children do not arrive with a medical history, raising lots of questions. Do they have a heart murmur? Are they not eating because they don’t like the food, or because they have a food allergy? Without a parent present to explain their child’s needs, providers must rely on behavioral cues or scraps of information from children in order to know how to help and keep them safe.

Our research highlights that transitional foster care facilities are doing what they can to help these young children who have been forcibly taken from their parents. The staff try to meet the children’s social, emotional, and physical needs. But as they are operating under a program model designed for older children, they are facing stretched budgets as they have to buy things like diapers and baby formula, and are struggling to find foster families willing and able to take in young babies.

These facilities rely heavily on local churches, local health clinics, volunteers, and other community members. Additional funding from ORR would allow them to enhance the quality of the services they are able to provide — especially by increasing the number of full-time staff members, particularly professional mental health providers who have expertise in addressing child trauma.

But there are many ways that we can provide a more robust system of care for the youngest children placed in transitional foster care. We need more lawyers, pediatricians, social workers, and therapists willing to volunteer their services. If you’re a professional in one of these areas, consider volunteering your time and expertise to a local agency. If you’re bilingual or bicultural, consider becoming a foster parent. You could also volunteer to be a community mentor — making those connections can make all the difference to a child.

There is no question that separating immigrant families violates the basic tenets of U.S. child welfare policy and practice. Transitional foster care — while necessary — is merely a cog in our ever-evolving and dysfunctional immigration system, a necessary programmatic response to a policy-generated problem. Building up a more robust set of supports for these facilities does not mean that separating parents and children at the border is a justifiable practice — but in the meantime, these children and families need all the help they can get.

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