Being a parent can feel like a never-ending whirlwind of diaper changes, school drop-offs, and making meals your kid thinks are gross. But the true challenge of parenthood isn't really the work involved, but the all-encompassing weight of your love for your child, and the need you always feel to keep them safe and secure. So what happens when they're taken away? On Monday, the American Association of Pediatrics president Dr. Colleen Kraft said that separating families at the border is a form of child abuse, and honestly, that seems entirely — and excruciatingly — accurate.
Debate over the Trump administration's ramped up immigration policy became particularly heated after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that border patrol would begin aiming for "100 percent prosecution" of all individuals who attempt to enter the country anywhere other than at designated ports of entry, according to NBC News. But prosecuting immigrants isn't the only issue: the policy has also meant that thousands of children have been separated from their parents due to the criminal charges against them — in many cases, even including first-time asylum seekers. And while it's clear that that was intended to be the entire point — Sessions said that anyone who didn't like that policy simply shouldn't "smuggle children over our border" — it seems that the emotional wellbeing of the actual children left without their guardians has been treated as an afterthought.
In an interview with CBS This Morning's Gayle King, Kraft said that, politics aside, the practice of separating children from their parents as a matter of government policy can cause real and lasting harm. When King said that she'd heard some describe the situation as a form of child abuse, Kraft agreed, and said, "It is a form of child abuse." And, that abuse has both a physical and developmental impact. Kraft said,
So when we look at what happens to the stress response in human beings and very young children, when we are stressed, we have increased levels of cortisol — of our 'fight or flight' hormones — and normally that helps to protect us when there's a dangerous situation. In the instance where children are separated from their parents, the one buffer they have against these fight or flight chemicals is gone.
Kraft went on to explain that the effect is that the separated children "are on red alert all the time," which can "disrupt the synapses, and the neurological connections that are part of the developing brain." In other words? Separating immigrant children isn't just a moral issue or about what feels fair or unfair. The experience is literally causing the kind of trauma that actually affects children's brain development.
When I think of my own children, twins who are now 5 years old, I remember all of the things I've done — just like all the other parents I know — to nurture their growing brains as much as I possibly could. Like most parents, my husband and I gave our babies lots of love and affection, and ensured they were fed and clean and happy — even when it meant waking up at 2 a.m. We bought them wooden toys and sang them songs, and played Peek-A-Boo. We took them to music class, baby play dates, we spoke to them all day long and read to them each night. Now, we encourage them to play and learn and have fun and be brave, secure in the knowledge that we're there for them whenever they fall down or get scared or just need to know how loved they are. We've always done absolutely everything we could.
All of that is no doubt exactly the kind of thing most, if not all, of these immigrant parents wish they, too, could give their own children. And yet, while my kids sleep safely in their own beds, their children are now sleeping in shelters without their parents, cared for by adults who, as Kraft told The Washington Post, can feed them and change them and offer them toys, but who aren't allowed to pick them up or hug them when they cry. Just as she explained to King, Kraft told the Post that in addition to being emotionally upsetting in the moment for the child, the experience of separation would ultimately put them at risk for long-term issues stemming from that "toxic stress" experience, including "health problems, such as heart disease and substance abuse disorders."
To put the impact of the separation into perspective — to illustrate just how emotionally abusive it really is to separate these young children from their parents — Kraft told King she wanted people to think of a recent photo posted on social media by Ivanka Trump, in which she could be seen cuddling her 2-year-old son, Theo.
It depicted the kind of moment that every parent knows will just melt your entire heart — when you hold your child in your arms and feel how deeply you love every little thing about them, and how you'd do anything to protect them. But, as Kraft noted, it's also the perfect depiction of exactly the kind of bond all children should be able to count on having in their lives:
If you look at this picture, you see the joy between parent and child. You see the child who is responding to their parent. You see that child's brain being built. Every one of our children in this world deserve that same relationship with their parent, the same nurturing.
There will, of course, no doubt be those who agree with Sessions' line of thinking — if they didn't want to risk their children getting hurt, then they shouldn't have attempted to cross the border illegally. Yet, while immigration might seem like the issue here, Kraft's point is that it really isn't. Because regardless of whether or not their parents should be prosecuted, the real victims of the government's zero-tolerance, "prosecute now and let them defend themselves later" policy are the children, who are left to experience an immense trauma, without anyone there they can trust to help guide them through it.
That's not something that any child should be put through, regardless of their parents' actions (though it also needs to be noted that seeking asylum is not actually illegal, and though it's true that those who have entered the country at proper border crossing points won't be prosecuted, Texas Monthly noted that some of the bridges weren't actually accepting anyone, leaving asylum seekers stranded). Most notably though, is the fact that the practice could actually be stopped at any moment if the administration were to agree.
It's clear that, at this point, Trump doesn't particularly see the policy to be nearly as unnecessarily abusive and traumatizing as Kraft does, and that's both frustrating and upsetting. But if he needs a little help to come around, Kraft's suggestion is right on the money: just think of your grandson.