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Over the past weeks, we have seen horrific pictures of children separated from their parents and detained in tents and holding pens. Politicians justify this by claiming that they are enforcing the law against illegal entry by adult immigrants, whose children are taken away in order to deter other parents from crossing the border. If we examine this practice not from the perspective of adult law, but from the perspective of the child, it becomes clear why so many Americans of all parties feel a deep-seated sense of outrage and shame that our government can engage in such a cruel practice.
Children in all cultures are dependent on their parents, and the religious and secular laws all over the world recognize their vulnerability, dependency on families, and their protected status. Children cannot vote and have no say in the major decisions of their lives: where they live, how to be educated, and who cares for them. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (20 November 1989), which was ratified by almost all UN member-countries and signed by the US (but not ratified because some US states still executed minors until 2005), declared that childhood deserves special care and assistance. “The family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community” and “that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” (Preamble, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989).
The children crossing our borders did not choose this journey, but were forced by violence, poverty, and dysfunctional societies to make the long, dangerous trek through deserts and foreign lands. No child would choose such a fate unless pushed to the limits. Or they would follow their parents, who love them and often leave their homelands because they fear for the well-being and lives of their children in strife-torn Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras. By the time these families reach our border, they have experienced deprivation, fear, exhaustion and pain and have in all likelihood witnessed illness and violent death firsthand. And so have the children.
Child psychology teaches us that parents are the “safe base” which allows children to maintain their courage and equanimity in the most difficult circumstances. Children can face and bear devastating experiences with resilience as long as a caring, familiar adult is there for them and provides the consistency and predictability of daily family life (even while camping in the desert or detained in a gym). We know from the experiences of children during WW II who were sent to live with strangers in the British countryside or in orphanages that the separation from parents leads to deep grief and depression. Children living in institutions, particularly children under the age of 6, can be permanently damaged by prolonged separation from their parents. The younger the children, the more cruel and devastating and long-lasting are the effects of prolonged institutionalization.
Separating children from their parents has been an evil colonialist tool meant to destroy the spirit and culture of disenfranchised minorities. Often under the guise of education and child-welfare, indigenous children of many cultures were warehoused in boarding schools and orphanages. Targeting families and children strikes at the heart of what it means to be human: to be born vulnerable and dependent on the generation before us; to be attached to one’s social group and to love those we spend our daily lives with. Parents and children fear only one thing more than to be separated from each other: the death of the other.
Separation from their families increases the toxic stress that refugee children experience and multiplies the psychological effects of the traumatic situations they have witnessed. We know that trauma can lead to serious impairments in children’s cognitive abilities, emotional regulation, behavior, self-image, ability to attach to other people, and various health problems such as asthma, headaches, and stomach problems. Why would we increase the potential for these serious mental health problems by separating traumatized children from their parents?
A just society is built around the welfare of children, for they are our future. The child exemplifies the endurance of our culture beyond our individual, contemporary lives. In America, we seem to have forgotten this. We value the life and welfare of our children so little that we do not support parental leave, early childhood education, and are perfectly content with low performing and under-funded schools for the majority of urban US children. Our government never ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child— the only other states that have not done so are Somalia and South Sudan.
Article 9 of the Convention is explicit in ensuring that the right of children to be raised by their families is protected and safeguarded by laws and humane procedures:
Refugee children have become a pawn in an unethical political game of Washington one-upmanship. We need to put children first and create a system that is humane and has their wellbeing at its center. Refugee children belong to all of us: as a just and ethical society we must protect their wellbeing and their special human rights. They need to be kept with their families, and together they need shelter, food, safety, education, and play. It is urgent that the US finally ratify the Convention of the Rights of Children and that we put children’s rights and welfare at the center of our domestic politics. The real greatness of a culture, after all, is measured by the way it cares for its children and safeguards their healthy future.
Copyright 2018 Eva-Maria Simms
Dr. Eva-Maria Simms is the Adrian van Kaam professor of psychology at Duquesne University. Her research-based activism focuses on trauma in families and communities.