Many Kids Separated From Families at U.S. Border Suffer PTSD – Consumer Health NewsNovember 25, 2021
WEDNESDAY, Nov. 24, 2021 (HealthDay News) — Parents and children who were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have shown lasting psychological trauma — even after being reunited, a new study finds.
Between 2017 and 2018, more than 5,000 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under the policy, which aimed to deter asylum seekers.
The practice was denounced by human rights groups and medical experts as inhumane — with the American Academy of Pediatrics calling it “government-sanctioned child abuse.” It was ultimately overturned in the courts.
That was not the end of the story, however. As of August, more than 1,800 children remained separated from their parents, according to a task force established by the Biden administration. And the U.S. federal government is in negotiations on how to compensate families.
Now, the new study offers a snapshot of the policy’s mental health fallout.
Researchers found that among 25 families separated at the border, nearly all parents and children met the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis — even though they’d been reunited.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and anxiety disorders (including separation anxiety in some children) were among the diagnoses delivered.
The families had experienced “compound trauma,” said researcher Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser to the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
Many were victims of gang-based persecution in their home country, and fled due to violence and threats of violence. Once they made it to the U.S. border after a harrowing journey, they were confined to a detention center.
And when their children were taken away, parents were usually given no information on where they were going or whether and how they would be reunited.
It may sound unsurprising, then, that there would be psychological consequences. But there has been little hard data on these families. That, Mishori said, is because they are a difficult population for researchers to access.
The findings were published Nov. 24 in the journal PLOS One.
“This is a very important study,” said Dr. Alan Shapiro, senior medical director of the community pediatrics program at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. “It’s extremely important for policymakers to understand the consequences of these actions.”
Shapiro, who was not involved in the research, is a co-founder of Terra Firma, a Montefiore-based program that provides health care and legal services to immigrant children and families.
As this study shows, Shapiro said, the trauma of separation does not disappear once families are reunited.
“The memory of the fear doesn’t just go away,” he said. And the reunion, itself, is not necessarily a smooth process, Shapiro noted: Children can be angry; parents can be guilt-ridden.
Mishori made the same point, noting that if children are quite young and the separation is long, they might not even remember their parents.