NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

July 9, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

One benefit of the excitement over now-rescinded Trump Administration policies regarding undocumented adults entering this country with children is that it’s produced a focus on children and what happens to them emotionally when they’re separated from their parents. This article is a pretty good one in that regard because it truly is about children and the trauma they suffer when removed from their parents (Wall Street Journal, 6/20/18). That is, it’s more than just an excuse to bash the Trump Administration.

Now, I assume that most people, when reading the linked-to piece will be thinking of immigrant kids from Mexico and Central America who’ve been so much in the news. I’d like to issue an invitation to those readers to consider children being taken into foster care. Indeed, I’d like readers to consider mostly that. After all, some 2,300 kids were separated from adults at the border, while we have about 438,000 children in foster care at any given time. In 2016, over 600,000 kids spent some time in foster care. And of course the number in foster care barely hints at the number of kids taken by child welfare agencies but who never make it into care.

In short, while the kids at the border are important, so are ours who’ve been here all their lives. With that in mind, consider:

For children of all ages, the loss of a caregiver activates the biological response to stress, which includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as elevated hormone levels. If the biological response is continuously engaged, it begins to cause “wear and tear” on the child’s body, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child.

The AAP, in its statement condemning the policy, cited the “lifelong consequences” of extended exposure to serious stress, a condition sometimes called toxic stress. Current research indicates that chronic stress puts people at increased risk of psychiatric disorders and other health problems.

“For example, if heart rate and blood pressure stay up for a long period of time, it puts a strain on the cardiovascular system, or it can lead to insulin resistance and put you at increased risk of diabetes,” Dr. Shonkoff said.

Are you listening, Child Protective Services? I fully understand that most kids in foster care were abused or neglected at home. I also understand that U.S. government policy and law offer cash incentives to states to take children from parents. That of course stems from the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1998, a Clinton Administration initiative. We know how traumatic being taken from a parent can be for a child. The above-quoted medical facts (and many others) strongly militate in favor of making removal of a child from parents a last resort, taken only when there is real danger of real harm.

[I]n the first three years of life, children undergo a rapid period of brain development. Constantly changing caregivers could impair the development of a child’s executive functions, such as the ability to regulate behavior and pay attention, said Megan Gunnar, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

“For very young children, this is probably going to have the greatest impact because the relationship between infant/young child and their caregivers is so important,” said Adam Brown, a psychology professor at New York University Langone Medical Center who studies traumatic stress in children. “The most intensive brain development occurs in these early years.”

This is much the same as we’ve seen regarding kids in daycare. Sound studies show them with elevated levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” and suffering for it later in life. And of course the younger the child, the worse the effects of separation.

Now back to CPS.

Even brief episodes that don’t induce the stress response can affect some children, according to Pat Levitt, a neurogeneticist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Infants, for example, can demonstrate short-term cognitive impairments, such as difficulty controlling emotions or anxiety, or even experience serious physical deterioration, said Dr. Steven Marans, the director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center at the Yale Child Study Center.

With older children, Dr. Marans said, the length of separation can intensify feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, forcing them to rely on an increasingly limited number of cognitive or emotional responses.

“We’re increasingly concerned, the longer the separation,” he said.

Allow me to underline “even brief episodes that don’t produce a stress response can affect kids.” Again, CPS caseworkers should be taught this from day one. Separating children from parents is dangerous work. It harms children. Even if there is a clear risk of harm at home, that risk must be weighed against the certainty that the separation will itself cause harm.

Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor of human development and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, …pointed out that children often lack the cognitive abilities to make sense of their surroundings. After extended separation from caregivers, their longer-term outcomes could include increased risk of withdrawal, depression, anxiety, crime and anger, she said.

We know from numerous studies of kids who’ve been in foster care that they often come out of foster care in worse shape than when they went in. Indeed, that was the specific finding of federal Judge Janice Jack in her ruling against Texas Child Protective Services. Much of that harm comes from their initial separation from their parents. Kids form attachments to parents very, very early in life. Disrupting those attachments is traumatic and can lead to lifelong emotional, behavioral and psychological deficits. Everyone should be aware of those facts. That includes presidents and CPS caseworkers.

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