Separating Immigrant Children From Their Families
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a medical association representing physicians dedicated to the health of children and families around the globe, advocates putting an end to the practice of separating immigrant children from their families.
As child and adolescent psychiatrists, we recognize that parental support is an essential and proven factor for protecting children and helping children recover from the negative impacts of stress and trauma (1, 2). Maternal support has been shown to strengthen neuroprotective factors in the brain during childhood, when children’s brains are most vulnerable (3). Separating children from their families in times of stress can place children at heightened and unnecessary risk for developing potentially serious and long lasting traumatic stress reactions, at the very time when they are most in need of care and support.
In addition, we know that pulling families apart can cause harm. When children experience sudden separation from one or both parents, especially under frightening, unpredictable, and/or chaotic circumstances, they are at heightened risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other trauma-related reactions that may last for the rest of their lives. This is especially the case for children who are fleeing war, violence, or other traumatic situations in their home countries, since these children are already pre-disposed to developing trauma-related reactions.
Based on our expertise as physicians who focus on the mental health of children:
- AACAP opposes policies that attempt to deter immigration by separating children from their parents. Separation places already vulnerable children at increased risk for traumatic stress reactions, psychiatric disorders, and other adverse medical outcomes.
- AACAP supports using the appropriate official agency, in this case child protective services, as the pathway to conduct a thorough investigation and document any child abuse or neglect requiring the child’s removal from the parent or caregiver before children and families are separated.
- AACAP advocates for the provision of developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate, trauma-informed services for children and families, including the availability of evidence-based, trauma-focused treatment for children who develop significant trauma responses (4).
- McLaughlin, KA & Lambert, HK (2017). Child trauma exposure and psychopathology: mechanisms of risk and resilience. Current Opinion in Psychology, 14, 29-34.
- Cohen, JA, Mannarino, AP (2000). Predictors of treatment outcome in sexually abused children. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24, 893-894.
- Gee DG, Gabard-Durnam LJ, Telzer EH, Humphreys KL, Goff B, Shapiro M, Flannery J, Lumian DS, Fareri DS, Caldera C et al (2014). Maternal buffering of human amygdala-prefrontal circuitry during childhood but not during adolescence. Psychological Science, 25:2067-2078.
- AACAP (2010) Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of PTSD in children and adolescents. JAACAP.