Children separated from their parents at the U.S. border can suffer from “toxic stress” that leads to brain damage and problems later in life, mental health experts said Thursday, warning of depression and anger, learning disorders and the inability to accept love.
When youths experience constant stress or abuse, their bodies enter a state of tension that shifts blood flow and diminishes the brain’s ability to even function, said Susan Van Cleve, a pediatric nurse practitioner from Pittsburgh.
Experts, like Ms. Van Cleve, say that’s likely happening to thousands of children who have been separated as a result of President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which has jailed parents who illegally crossed the border, forcing their children to be taken away from them.
“These children have been needlessly traumatized and must be reunited with their parents or other family members as quickly as possible to minimize any long-term harm to their mental or physical health,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association.
The children have become the focus of an intense debate in Washington this month.
Their parents have brought them on the perilous journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S., sometimes braving beatings and rape in order to reach the border.
The mental health experts said that’s rough enough, but to then be separated while their parents go to jail and the children head to government-run dorms compounds the trauma.
Experts said some of the effects of toxic stress can be undone through therapy, though some of the fallout is permanent.
Young people who experience repeated trauma — say, parents are always fighting — are constantly in a “fight” or “flight” mode, resulting in physical changes.
“Your pupils are really open wide, your heart is beating faster, your muscles get more blood to them, because you’re ready to ‘fight or flight,’” Ms. Van Cleve said. “If you’re in that state all the time, you’re taking blood away from your brain, essentially.”
Mr. Evans said they need “culturally appropriate” mental health services, and said they must be given the same standards of care as American children would get.
Mr. Trump this week signed an executive order he said will end separations. Instead of parents heading to jail, they will now be kept in immigration detention facilities that are set up to accommodate families, so the children can follow them.
He says the courts and congressional Democrats are encouraging the surge of illegal immigration by supporting a “catch-and-release” policy that makes it nearly impossible to detain families. Instead, they are released into the U.S. and often fail to show up for deportation proceedings.
Mr. Trump says detaining them is a way of making sure they can be deported.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Trump is setting up a false choice — that Democrats’ push to protect children means they do not want to protect the border.
“That’s simply not true. We just don’t think we should do it buy putting children in cages,” she said in front of nearly a dozen white-coated clinicians Democrats enlisted in scolding Mr. Trump on Capitol Hill.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II this week pushed back at Democrats’ depictions of the dorms where children are being held apart from there parents.
He said grantees who run the facilities have a “deep, passionate” commitment to caring for the children, including medical and psychological treatment.
“They’re getting their meals, they have athletics every day,” he told an event hosted by The Washington Post. “We believe we are doing our best to care for these children extremely well.”
Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the situation is still untenable.
“I’ve been to summer camp. This is not summer camp. I’ve had sleepovers with my kids. This is not a sleepover,” he said. “I remind you, that [those kids] always go home.”