The news cycle moves incredibly fast these days. There’s the drama of judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court; the question of who wrote the anonymous editorial in the New York Times that revealed the existence of a resistance movement within the Trump administration; and the impending political showdown in Europe after the United Kingdom charged two men it says are Russian secret agents in the Novichok poisoning case.
But lost among these headlines is a story that shouldn’t fade into the background: The US government recently revealed that 416 migrant children remain in government custody, separated from their families–14 of whom are under the age of five.
In a joint status update (pdf) filed with the District Court for the Southern District of California on Thursday (Sept. 6), the ACLU said that of the 416 children still under custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), 199 were the children of parents who had waived their rights to reunification. But Jacob Soboroff, a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC who has been covering the family separation crisis since it began earlier this year, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that parents of migrant kids still in ORR custody were being pressured into signing away their right to be reunified with their children. Meanwhile, the ACLU, in its joint status update, said that dozens of parents are being denied reunification with their children based on questionable allegations of criminal histories and other red flags.
The brief discusses the case of a mother who was denied reunification with her four-year-old child (who was three when he was first detained), based on an outstanding warrant from her home country, which alleges that she is a gang member. But, as lawyers for the ACLU write:
The mother denies this allegation, and at her immigration bond hearing, the immigration judge expressly found that this warrant was not sufficient evidence that the mother was a danger to the community. Defendants have nevertheless refused to reunify this family based on the parent’s alleged criminal history. This child is suffering greatly in detention and is at particular risk of grievous and irreparable harm.
The short- and long-term impact that family separations have on children cannot be overstated–especially when it comes to kids under five years old, who are going through the most critical phase of human development. The separation causes stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, to flood their systems. Over time, those hormones can cause learning and behavioral problems, physical and mental health issues, and, if the separation becomes permanent, immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular problems, and can even alter the physical structure of the brain.
The longer the separation, the worse the impact of the stress is likely to be–which is not good news for the 416 children who have been alone, in government custody, since June.
Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, told Quartz that separating kids from their parents is one of the worst things we can do to them: “Here we have taken away what science has said is the most potent protector of children in the face of any adversity—the stability of the parent-child relationship.”
As he explains: “This is not a scientific issue—it’s a fundamental, moral disaster.”
Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.