Separating children from their parents or caregivers hurts children. Between April 19 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents. As Celeste Fremon reported in WitnessLa, that number has now passed 2,300 children (and is increasing by more than 60/day), with another 11,000 locked up in everything from large cages to a converted Walmart.
“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” says a petition signed by more than 9,000 mental health professionals and 172 organizations.
Many people who see reports of children separated from their parents might think that, because they’re not crying, that they’ve adjusted. Or, if they are crying, they’ll eventually stop and get over it.
But here’s the reality: In terms of the effects on children’s brains, those who participate in separating children from their parents and locking them up in detainment centers might as well be beating them with truncheons.
That might seem harsh, especially for those well-intentioned people working for the Department of Health and Human Services who are trying to do their best to care for immigrant kids taken from their parents. But the reality is that kids’ brains can’t distinguish between toxic stress caused by being separated from a parent, or toxic stress caused by living in an unsafe neighborhood, or toxic stress caused by living in a war zone, or toxic stress caused by witnessing violence outside the home, or toxic stress caused by suffering a beating, or toxic stress caused by living with an alcoholic parent, or toxic stress caused by being bullied.
It’s all toxic stress, and it all damages a child’s developing brain.
It’s why a very shaken Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, after watching a sobbing toddler with no parent to console her in a detention center in Combes, TX, told CNN: “This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.”
Of the several recent articles that have addressed the consequences of toxic stress, these from PBS News Hour’s Laura Santhanam and Washington Post science reporter William Wan explain what happens to the brain of a child who’s experienced toxic stress. Wan writes:
“Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.”
But the long-term consequences are also remarkably dire as these children grow into adulthood. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) — a groundbreaking public health study of more than 17,000 mostly white, college-educated people in San Diego, CA, all of whom had jobs and great healthcare — showed that, among many consequences, their cancer and rates of heart attack can double, and rates of alcoholism and suicide attempts skyrocket to previously unimagined levels.
“The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans,” writes Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principle investigator with Dr. Robert Anda of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. “One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even 50 years later.”
The ACE Study looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.
Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.
The ACE Study is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damages children’s developing brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; and how it affects our genes and can be passed from one generation to the next (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. Resilience research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, for example in education and in the family court system.
The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and a bunch of other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4.
Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. People with an ACE score of 4 have a 240 percent greater risk of hepatitis, are 390 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and a 240 percent higher risk of a sexually-transmitted disease.
People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, and more work absences. Compared with people who have zero ACEs, people with ACE scores are two to four times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs and to start using drugs at an earlier age. People with an ACE score of 5 or higher are seven to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs, to report addiction and to inject illegal drugs. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)
The ACE Study also found that it didn’t matter what the types of ACEs were. An ACE score of 4 that includes divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member has the same statistical health consequences as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect.
And, most sobering, people with an ACE score of 6 or higher die nearly 20 years earlier than those whose ACE score is zero.
The costs of ACEs are staggering. According to a CDC study released in 2012, just one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment costs $124 billion over the lifetime of the traumatized children. The researchers based their calculations on only confirmed cases of physical, sexual and verbal abuse and neglect, which child maltreatment experts say is a small percentage of what actually occurs.
The breakdown per child is:
- $32,648 in childhood health care costs
- $10,530 in adult medical costs
- $144,360 in productivity losses
- $7,728 in child welfare costs
- $6,747 in criminal justice costs
- $7,999 in special education costs
If you understand ACEs science, then you know that most of the kids who make it to the border with one or both parents are likely to have experienced several ACEs already: living in an unsafe neighborhood, witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing violence inside the home, being homeless, etc. And now the Trump administration policy is adding another ACE: losing a parent. (Even though the separation may not be permanent, kids, especially young children, have little comprehension of time. Telling a frantic child that ‘Mom will see you again in a week,” doesn’t soothe them.)
Also, if you understand ACEs science, you’d know what to look for if you visit a detention center: kids who consistently get into fights and act out. Kids who try to run away any chance they get. Kids who withdraw completely and don’t engage with their peers or adults. Kids who go overboard in trying to please adults to protect themselves or try to get their needs met. In other words: fight, flight, freeze or appease — the natural responses to unnatural and dangerous circumstances.
There’s a sliver of good news here: Brains are plastic and bodies want to heal. Experts say that if families are reunited as quickly as possible, and the children and parents are provided the support they need, then they can begin to heal….not completely, but enough to reduce the consequences of their trauma.
And who now holds the power to decide whether these children will be damaged further or given the option to heal? The Trump administration.