As a social worker, my heart breaks for the children in our detention camps

by Cassandra Little | August 10, 2018 8:29 pm
Photo by Louise Coghill via Flickr:

For 18 years, I worked in the Child Welfare System. I witnessed firsthand the trauma and harm children who were separated from their parents suffered from. Today, when I see the images of immigrant children torn from their families, I’m reminded of the kids I worked with.

Reports of mass separation, sexual abuse, and missing children have caused outrage among people across the United States. These children are victims of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that was imposed to deter families from crossing the Mexico border into the US. This tactic calls for children to be immediately taken from their parents and placed in shelters, foster homes and makeshift living facilities. Images of children populating cages exposed the heart-wrenching result of Trump’s lack of preparedness for such an extreme stance on immigration policy.

According to US immigration law, children left traveling alone must ultimately become a ward of the US Department of Health and Human service within three days of detainment. The children are then placed into shelters and foster care homes. As of May 2018, 2,300 immigrant children, including “tender age” children (children under 13 years), were separated from their families and thrown into unfamiliar, questionable and stressful environments.

This is not the first time we’ve done this. The Obama administration enforced punitive actions against undocumented immigrants, resulting in orphaned children—as their guardians were charged and prosecuted for their deeds. However, Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy birthed an influx of migrant children taken into custody and in need of care.  Human rights activists and lawmakers expressed outrage at images of unsupervised children wallowing in cages at the US Border Control Processing station.

As a mother and a former Clinical Social Worker, I thoroughly understand the level of trauma this process is causing the immigrant children. I have witnessed how after enduring traumatic separation from their parents young children develop separation anxiety and attachment disorders that haunts them into their adulthood. These children have required ongoing and long term therapeutic interventions to assist them with overcoming the trauma that being separated from their family has caused. Children who are traumatized are especially susceptible to emotional and stress related disorders that could plague them for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, the outpouring of condemnation has forced Trump to sign executive orders modifying his “zero tolerance” policy, including additional “tender age” facilities. Furthermore, immigrants who are caught crossing the border will maintain custody of their children in an immigration detention center, while being charged and prosecuted for trying to enter into the US undocumented. This executive move will continue the criminalization of those seeking safety for their families.

Trump is also facing a trail of lawsuits as a response to his zero-tolerance policy. Recently, A Guatemalan woman filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, alleging that her seven-year-old son was ripped from her and taken by border patrol, two days after they entering the US. Seventeen states also filed a lawsuit against the president in efforts to speed up the reuniting of children and families, while five immigrant children sued the Commander-In-Chief for “cruel policies” and “jail-like” housing, which will most likely cause trauma and emotional distress for the remainder of their lives.

I am relieved to see that people are taking action against the Trump administration’s horrific actions against immigrants and their children. This issue is not about being a Republican or a Democrat. My concerns are beyond being a Trump supporter or a Trump hater; it is about the children whose future depends on mindful policy, effective solutions, and basic humanity.

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