emotional trauma of splitting up families is long-lasting

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scared baby.jpg

Leslie Kaufman and Dan Frosch at the Times have a story today about the effects on young FLDS children of separation from their parents after the Texas state government raided the compound.  

As they await a ruling by the highest court in Texas on whether child-welfare authorities had the right to take 468 children from the ranch early last month, the mothers have started speaking out more forcefully about what they think the separation has already done to their children.

The mothers and their lawyers are undoubtedly trying to make their best pitch for public sympathy as the Supreme Court of Texas deliberates on the fate of their children. Last Thursday, an appeals court in Austin found that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had illegally removed the children without sufficient evidence that they were in immediate danger.

I think the state went too far in this instance, but my purpose here is not to get into the complicated issue of weighing the best interests of the children against the individual rights of members of the community.  (Though it appears that the state of Texas has not fully considered the scarring effects of separation from parents in its calculation of the children's best interests.)

Instead, I want to focus on what the article says about the severe mental and emotional consequences of removal on small children.

Many child-welfare experts across the nation, who have as a group watched the high-profile Texas case closely, say the raid on the polygamist ranch diverged sharply from the recommended practices both in Texas and elsewhere in the country.

They say a growing body of research supports the contention of the mothers that forceful removal can have both significant short-term and long-lasting harm, particularly for younger children. Some studies have found that the wide-ranging effects include anxiety, extreme distrust of strangers and, in the future, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and juvenile incarceration.

Through their lawyers and in personal interviews, the mothers have been spilling tales of toddlers who have forgotten toilet training and 3-year-olds who cling to them frantically during visits. Ms. Fischer's child became dehydrated as a result of a fever.

The parallels to the effects of recent immigration raids on children of detained migrants are uncanny.  From the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)'s discussion of a report last year from the Urban Institute and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR):

Researchers found that for every two people detained in immigration enforcement operations, one child is left behind.  Two-thirds of these children are U.S. citizens and a similar share is under age ten. The report details the consequences of immigration enforcement operations on children's psychological, educational, economic, and social wellbeing.  It also outlines the heavy burden that workplace raids are placing on communities, school systems, social service providers, and religious institutions, which have acted as first responders for families in these incidents. 

Corinn Williams, Executive Director of the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford has been serving the immigrant community impacted by the raid. "The horrific pain that people witnessed during the ordeal of the raid has not gone away. That raid still tears away at our community in New Bedford. Families are torn apart, and mothers and children are suffering, in some ways more than ever," she stated. 

Carol Trust, the Executive Director of the MA Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers stated, "It is crucial that child advocates call upon Federal and State officials to make the safety and wellbeing of children at the center of any discussion and a non-negotiable element of federal immigration reform."

Marylou Sudders, President and CEO of the MA Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stated, "We should be working with our congressional delegation to stop these raids from happening." She continued, "For the United States government to be engaged in raids that then traumatize children, two-thirds of whom are United States citizens, is a catastrophe." 

"We are at the beginning of a national crisis," stated Ester R. Shapiro, a professor at UMASS Boston and a researcher at the Gaston Institute who contributed research for the report.  "Homeland security guards told these mothers that DSS had already taken their children, that they had already lost their children." Shapiro continued, "A detainee told me the worst night of her life was spent listening to the weeping of mothers who thought they had already lost their children. That is torture, and we have to take a stand against that."

During the crisis in New Bedford, Dr. Amaro Laria, Director of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, volunteered his services to help with the initial intake of affected families. "It was one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult experience that I've encountered in terms of mental health in my profession." Laria continued, "One of the most devastating experiences that any individual can have is an abrupt separation in early childhood from a significant parent," stated Dr. Amaro Laria.  

Back to today's Times article:

It is because of the growing national consensus about the scarring effect of removal on children, even if only temporarily, that federal law -- to which all state law must defer -- demands that children be removed only if "reasonable efforts" to keep them at home have been made.

This federal law must not cover the situation where the government is removing parents and leaving children in the home--arguably worse since it opens up the possibility that children will be left temporarily with no one to care for them.  At least when a child is taken into government care or foster care, there is a nominal caretaker.  

ICE has made some gestures in this direction in recent raids, releasing mothers with young children on their own recognizance so they can at least go home from work to take care of their kids.  But the problem is this: those mothers are still in removal proceedings, and will still be deported unless they can assert some legal defense.  This leaves many of those "mixed status" families in impossible situations, and will lead to the breakup of many families. 

Many states, like Oregon and Tennessee, have gone even further to protect children from the trauma of removal by giving families intensive in-home services first, and then, if the child is taken, having conferences with the parents, kin and friends from the community within 48 hours to help smooth the transition.

Even if state governments did offer counseling or other services to the families of migrants in detention, most families would not be in a position to utilize the services, since the government is also trying very hard to lock up and deport any undocumented family members not yet in detention. 

Steven D. Cohen, a senior associate at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national child-advocacy organization, said that while he could not say whether Texas officials acted improperly in taking the children from their mothers, he did think that they had violated numerous standards of best practice widely used elsewhere.

"Breaking all of the ties to several parental figures and siblings, and taking them to a remote and unfamiliar place raises many red flags about trauma and its effect on children," Mr. Cohen said

Experts say younger children, who often do not have a sense of the passage of time, can be particularly hard hit by such separations. About 100 of the children removed from the sect were 2 years old or younger.

Shelly Greco, a court-appointed lawyer for a 14-month-old girl removed from the ranch, says the child had been up crying uncontrollably many nights because she was so abruptly weaned.

Numerous studies in recent years show that the effects of removal can be long lasting, often not showing up fully for a decade of more. In one study, Joseph J. Doyle, an economist with the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., found that children removed from their parents and taken into foster care, even for a relatively short period, were three times as likely to grow up to be juvenile offenders or have a teenage pregnancy than were children from similarly troubled homes who had been left with their parents.

. . .

. . . Lori Jessop, one of a few mothers from the ranch who were reunited with their children in a court-brokered agreement last Friday, said she had already seen the impact of this situation. Ms. Jessop said her three children were suffering from night terrors and a fear of strangers, among other problems. She said that when her 4-year-old daughter recently saw a picture of a bus, like the one used to transport the children when they were in foster care, she started to cry.

"It's affected her a lot," Ms. Jessop said. "Everybody that she sees, especially adult men, she calls them policemen."

Texas needs to explain how its actions have served the best interests of these children.  Likewise, the federal government is placing the welfare of a whole generation of children of immigrants--many of these children being U.S. citizens--at risk through its concerted efforts to break up families for base political gain.  Is this what we want to pay our government to do? 


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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on May 29, 2008 8:08 AM.

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