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Long-Lasting Effects of Family Separation Policy Likely for Children

Separation from a caregiver can lead to such disorders in adulthood as anxiety and depression. (pathdoc/Adobe Stock)
Separation from a caregiver can lead to such disorders in adulthood as anxiety and depression. (pathdoc/Adobe Stock)
May 24, 2019

BOISE, Idaho – Separating families at the border likely will have long-term effects on the children involved. That's according to decades of research, says Taryn Yates – grant manager and planner with the Idaho Children's Trust Fund.

Yates says forced separation from parents creates profound stress for a child, and long-lasting separation also prolongs the body's stress responses, leaving them feeling unsafe. Yates says separation neurologically looks the same as neglect, which the brain processes like physical abuse.

And in some cases, she says neglect can be more damaging than abuse.

"You're getting the lack of the nurturing they need for their brain development, and you're also getting the stress of not having the caregiver there to help them self-regulate and help them calm down,” says Yates. “So, they're just in this sustained stress response, which their brain begins to wire in that way."

The Trump administration implemented a "zero tolerance" policy to deter migrants from coming across the U.S./Mexico border a year ago this month, but later rescinded it. More than 2,800 kids were separated under this policy and recent court documents have identified another 1,700 possible separation cases.

Federal officials say it could take up to two years to reunite families.

If these situations aren't resolved soon, Yates says the stress of separation will most likely follow children into adulthood. Possible results are lower I.Q., underdeveloped social and emotional competence, and disorders such as anxiety and depression.

She explains kids need to feel safe in order to explore their world and learn – and brains that feel threatened have a greater difficulty learning.

"So what's happening is these children are kind of in these holding patterns, where their brains are so stressed out that they're not able to learn,” says Yates. “They're not able to have positive experiences, and without parents around, there's no adult to buffer that stress."

Yates also has young children of her own, which she says gives her practical examples of how important caregivers are in making kids feel safe.

"The attachment between a caregiver and a child is really this beautiful thing that should be protected, and that our community should stand firm that it's something that we always protect,” says Yates.

Disclosure: Idaho Children's Trust Fund contributes to our fund for reporting on Children's Issues, Early Childhood Education, Family/Father Issues, Youth Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID