More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the Mexico-U.S. border in recent weeks. Housed in tent camps, converted warehouses, and other shelters, many had no idea when they would see their parents again. Some have been sent many states away, and some are in foster care.
The Trump Administration announced it will end the enforced separation by detaining families together, but experts say that is not likely to eliminate the enduring health impacts.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement concluding that "highly stressful experiences ... can cause irreparable harm to lifelong development by disrupting a child's brain architecture."
The president of the AAP, Dr. Colleen Kraft, explored these issues in a session held at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. In April, she visited one of the "Tender Care Shelters" that was run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Texas-Mexico border.
Speaking of a staff person who was directed by official policy not to hold or comfort a child, Dr. Kraft said "the look of helplessness on her face matched the look of horror and terror on the faces of these little toddlers." She went on to explain the physiology of stress. The kids have stress hormone damage, and "a fight or flight" mentality ... which leads to developmental delay, and maladaptive behavior.
With normal brain architecture, she said, "you will keep the ability to read, the ability to write, the ability to love and learn." With these kids, "the strong connections with fear and anxiety and pain and hurt are the ones that stay, and the ability to learn new things, the ability to read, will he pruned away."
Joining her was clinical social worker Ann Thomas, president of The Children's Place in Kansas City, Missouri, which works with traumatized children. Thomas said the challenges are truly immense, but children are resilient and their brains can be rewired.
They spoke about the enduring biological and psychological consequences of the trauma facing the young migrants.
The moderator was Jackie Judd, a longtime journalist for NPR, PBS and ABC. She spent a decade at the Kaiser Family Foundation focusing on health policy communications.
To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.