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Detention Centers and Separations Equals Trauma for Immigrant Children, Say Experts

There is no doubt that the immigrant children being put in detention centers and separated from their parents and loved ones will not forget these experiences for the rest of their lives. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who last month condemned the practice of separating families as “government-sanctioned child abuse,” said these kids are also at risk for abnormal development.


Being told by guards at facilities that their parents will be deported if they don’t behave or keep quiet produces a feeling of constant threat. Doctors are already observing separation anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and behavioral problems in detained children.

Kraft said these children face long-term risks, including behavioral health problems.

“The effect of this type of event will follow these children into adulthood and into their entire lives,” the president of the American College of Physicians, Dr. Ana Maria Lopez, said. “Our federal government is causing a situation that is creating a host of potential health consequences for an entire category of people.”

Research shows that children who suffer trauma; witness or experience violence; or are neglected, abused or abandoned may develop aggressive behaviors, have trouble controlling emotions, be impulsive and have violent outbursts. These children are also at a 20 to 30 percent risk for juvenile delinquency.

David Schwartz, associate professor of psychology at USC Dornsife College, described in a recent column his past work with victims of forced family separations.

“One of the most significant triggers to serious psychological problems involves threats of imminent death. Children are completely dependent on adult caregivers for all their needs. Accordingly, forced separation is psychologically equivalent to the threat of death. The effect is terror and helplessness. The child is deeply aware that they are left alone in a fearful world,” Schwartz, whose research focuses on the link between early social maladjustment and later disorder, wrote.

Paul Spiegel, a physician and director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Newsweek that trauma will exacerbate learning difficulties, as well as any genetic predisposition to a mental health condition. He also said some may be more prone to substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Major opposition to Trump’s inaction on family separations continues as politicians and activists speak out. More than 600 demonstrations took place over the weekend across the United States and on the border with Mexico.

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