Mental health pros on family separation: Some damage can never be undone | Opinion

Immigration Florida
Migrant children walk outside at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a former Job Corps site that now houses them, on June 22, 2018, in Homestead, Fla.

The United States of America, at the direction of our president, has been abusing children. 

The policy of separating children from their parents and warehousing them without parental contact was, and is, a criminal act with tragic consequences. 

Simply put, this is child abuse. The damage has been done, and this damage grows every single day.

President Trump’s Executive Order purports to stop further separation of children from their parents at the border. Yet it cannot undo what has been done to over 2,000 innocent children and babies. With no plans for reuniting separated families or for evaluation and treatment of their suffering, U.S. immigration officials are defaulting on any pretense of acting in the best interests of these children.

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While defending our borders is important, that goal does not trump our shared responsibility to protect children from harm.

As mental health professionals, our legal responsibility under every state law is to comply with mandated reporting – to “report all known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect.” State and local authorities then have a responsibility to take immediate action to secure the safety of these children.  

As physicians and psychologists, we know how this trauma adversely impacts children now and going forward. The damage wrought by early trauma and stress literally changes young brains, impairing their ability to form stable relationships, manage emotions, and learn. Trauma increases the likelihood of serious physical and mental illness into and through adulthood. Traumatized children have higher rates of adult depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, hypertension, obesity, and dementia. We even know that the impact can last more than a lifetime; epigenetic research shows that the effects can be passed down to future generations.

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Every major medical and mental health association, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Practice, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have issued clear statements protesting the administration’s forced separation policy and highlighting its profound and damaging effects. 

We want to go to these children, warehoused behind chain link fencing in empty buildings and hold them.  We would play with them, talk to them, dry their tears, and tell them, “it will be OK.” But as clinicians, we know this would be a lie. Some damage may never be undone.

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Changing the minds of those responsible for this unprecedented and destructive policy is frankly unrealistic. But it appears that the raised voices of a compassionate public have had some influence in the last few days. We implore state and local law enforcement to step in immediately to secure a legal injunction requiring reunification of currently separated families and proper evaluation and treatment of those in need.

With thousands of our fellow mental health clinicians in support, we aim to keep public attention focused on preventing further mistreatment of children.  We cannot wait for an elusive immigration reform bill or the next election. Children’s lives are being ruined — not temporarily, but forever.  We can’t stop now.

Lisa Goldstein, MD is a child psychiatrist in suburban Philadelphia. Greg Sazima, MD is a psychiatrist in the Sacramento area. Dana L. Sinopoli, PsyD is a psychologist in Philadelphia and a leading national advocate against child separation policies. Dr. Sinopoli’s original open letter on Childs World America has now been signed by over 12,000 mental health professionals.