The fleeting childhood of U.S. border children

By Darlene Byrne, Judge, 126th Judicial District Court
The comments in this paper are solely the opinions of the writer and no other organization.  

As a judge in Texas who has presided over many hundreds of child abuse and neglect cases since 2003, I have seen firsthand what the trauma of removing a child from a parent can do to the child. The parent-child relationship is one of our most sacred and precious fundamental and constitutional rights, as recognized by many U.S. and Texas Supreme Court cases.

Sentencing innocent children at our U.S. borders, with instant removal from their parents with no notice, no warning, and no due process goes against the moral code of this nation. The events taking place at our southern border are no less traumatic for the affected children than cases in which a child is removed from their parents because of allegations of abuse and neglect.

However, unlike the process when the parent is charged with abuse or neglect, the forcible separation of families at the border occurs without due process or judicial oversight. For child abuse and neglect cases there are well developed federal and state laws, honed and refined over decades, to insure both the child and parents are provided with due process prior to any separation of children from their parents. There is immediate and ongoing judicial oversight of the investigation by child welfare professionals regarding removal of children.

The judge’s role is to asses whether the government has met the high burden required to justify removal of a child from the custody of the parent, governed by the mantra to Do No Harm to the child. Our laws seek to insure that children are not summarily stripped from their parent’s arms, and segregated in a holding cell or abandoned Walmart along with hundreds of other traumatized and removed children. But, if possible, placed with grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, or prior babysitters – people the child already knows and loves—or at least placed with a licensed foster parent with training in childcare and trauma. Even then, judicial oversight continues to encourage frequent visits and contacts with all but the most unfit parents within a very short time after removal.

As the chair of the Texas Statewide Collaboration on Trauma Informed Care, watching what is happening at my state’s border to these children is the antithesis of a trauma informed system of care and country. These policies ignore the mandate to do no harm to these children.

Although I am only one judge, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, of which I am a member and past president, has recently spoken against the separation of children and their families in the following resolution http://www.ncjfcj.org/Separation-Policy-Statement. Childhood is fleeting. Time is of the essence. These children should not and cannot wait for the contentious and laborious wholesale overhaul of our country’s immigration policy, which our Congress has been working on for years. By then, their childhood will be over and the lifetime damage will be done. If anyone deserves action and due process, it is the innocent children arriving at our borders today.

“Government-Sanctioned Child Abuse”: Separating Kids, Parents at Border

Government officials are doing irreparable harm to families seeking asylum. They are separating children from their families, no matter the age of the child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and over 200 other child welfare organizations, which have become increasingly sensitized to early life stress, have condemned the practice of child-parent separations. The head of the AAP, Colleen Kraft, has written an op-ed against it.

She says: “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they act solely “to protect the best interests of minor children.””

Hardly. Is it ignorance or malice? We don’t know, but the justifications sound both ignorant and malicious.

What ignorance are they displaying? Here is a short description:

Human children are not like other animals. They are born so immature they look like fetuses of other animals till about 18 months of age. In the first years of life, children co-construct their biological and social capacities, organizing their basic features around the experiences they have.  The norms for our species is the evolved nest. One specific need that separation denies is physical affection from known caregivers. This need among social mammals like us was well documented by Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments. Young monkeys deprived of their mother’s touch developed into aggressive and autistic (socially awkward) individuals, never to recover.

Extensive distress shifts development, undermining what otherwise develops in a loving supportive environment –biologically healthy systems and social engagement. Instead extensive distress enhances primitive survival mechanisms in ways that grow to harm self and others—e.g., the stress response becomes hyperreactive. Because the first years of life are so sensitive to experience, the individual may never recover to reach their full potential (although they may recover enough to survive—i.e., what is often called “resilience”).

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Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons

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Central American asylum seekers, including a Honduran girl, 2, and her mother, are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border in June in McAllen, Texas.

They all agree. Physicians for Human Rights. American Medical Association. American Academy of Pediatrics. American Psychiatric Association. National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. 

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.

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Tonier Cain Deserves an Evidence-Based Apology

Tonier Cain. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Editor’s note: Over 15 years, Tonier Cain was arrested 83 times, and convicted 66 times. She was addicted to crack. She was a prostitute. She had four children and lost them to child protective services. Remarkably, she didn’t give up hope, and one day, she found someone in the system who knew about trauma and who didn’t give up on her. Cain now advocates for trauma-informed care in prisons and mental health facilities. She gives speeches around the country and the world. Cissy White was fortunate to attend a conference in North Carolina where Cain gave a presentation. This is Cissy’s reaction.
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When Tonier Cain gave a keynote presentation at the Benchmarks’ Partnering for Excellence conference in North Carolina, it took me months to recover from her speech.
Seriously. It was hard to stand after she spoke. When I did, I went right to a yoga mat in the self-care calm room for a while. I took off my high heels and curled up in a ball for a bit.
I’m still digesting her words. It’s not that the content was intense and heavy, though it was. It wasn’t that she talked about a ton of traumatic experiences she had survived – though she did.

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A Kaiser pediatrician, wise to ACEs science for years, finally gets to use it

Dr. Suzanne Frank has known about the impact of childhood adversity on young lives for decades. She’s seen the fallout in the faces of young people huddled in beds at a children’s shelter where she worked years ago.

She’s seen it as the regional child abuse services and champion for the Permanente Medical Group.

And she’s seen it in hospital examination rooms where, as a member of the Santa Clara County’s Sexual Assault Response Team, she’s been called in to examine shell-shocked children and teens.

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ACEs science can prevent school shootings, but first people have to learn about ACEs science

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David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control. Photo by Jonathan Drake / Reuters

After 17 people, mostly teens, were shot and killed by another teen last week in Parkland, FL, what seems to be a real movement is growing, propelled by kids devastated by their friends’ deaths and wanting to prevent such a massacre from ever happening again.

Their rallies and marches and lie-downs probably won’t have much effect in the short-term, as some of the Parkland teens learned as they witnessed — and some of them wept during — today’s lightning vote by state lawmakers along party lines to end debate on an assault weapons ban, which killed any further consideration of the bill in the Florida legislature’s current session.

But their persistence can make a difference in the long run, especially if they — and we — widen this to include the dozens of kids shot on the streets of Chicago or Camden or in other communities every week. We can even broaden the approach to include the 200 people, including many children, who died in Syrian air strikes in the last two days, because the roots and solutions are the same.

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We can’t stop sex harassment by firing or incarcerating our way out; we can stop it by using ACEs science

AMeToo

So, Harvey Weinstein has gone to ground, along with Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, and they’re likely never to work in their chosen fields again. This week, federal Appeals Court Judge Alex Kosinski retired after 15 women, including former clerks, accused him of sexual misconduct. Do a search for “sexual harassment” and stories about dozens of men across a variety of professions appears.

Sexual harassment is everywhere – all professions, including higher education, and all walks of life (see the NYTimes article about women who work in Ford’s Chicago plants). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that 60% of women report having experienced sexual harassment. That’s 45 million women. Forty-five million. And a much smaller, but still in the millions, number of men have also been sexually harassed by their male or female bosses.

The solutions so far — Fire them! Jail them! Destroy them! — might garner some headlines and short-term satisfaction. The solutions certainly fit our traditional approach of using blame, shame and punishment to attempt to change human behavior.

But we can’t fire or imprison our way out of this — it’s too big and too complex. Here’s why:

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