The History and Impact of Child-Family Separations

Hidden Children of the Holocaust open up about border situation – say policy separating migrant children from parents is unconscionable.

August 14, 2019

It happened again.  As the nation watched, children were separated from their families—this time in Mississippi. 

ICE Raid at Mississippi Worksites

It was the first day of school in several small towns in Mississippi. While children met their new teachers and went about their day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents conducted the largest single-state workplace raid in history.  ICE officers targeted seven Mississippi chicken processing plants and arrested 680 workers who they believed were working without immigration documentation. When dozens of schoolchildren got home that day to tell their families about their first day of school, their parents were gone.

Many of these young people were left temporarily homeless. They were taken to makeshift shelters and fed by residents. When ICE was asked whether they provided safeguards for children, one ICE official said, "We are a law enforcement agency, not a social services agency." They explained that advance warning to schools or social service agencies could have forewarned immigrants and ruined the planned raid. A video of an 11-year-old girl pleading for her Dad’s release went viral. A few days later, local media reported that all the children are now with family members.

Child Family Separations at the Border

The images of crying and distraught children reminded us of an earlier incident when migrant children were forcibly separated from families at the U.S.-Mexico border. In May 2018, the Administration implemented its new expanded “zero tolerance” policy for families crossing the Mexico border. The policy stipulated that all migrants without documentation, most of whom were seeking asylum in the U.S., would be referred to Department of Justice for the prosecution of a crime. This would render their children unaccompanied minors. The children who were accompanying adults would be deliberately separated from their parents to be held at juvenile shelters.

During this time, the news featured horrific stories of children being ripped from their parents at the border and placed in detention centers and shelters. The intense public outcry and lawsuits against the federal government led the Trump Administration to end its official policy of family separations.  However, the Administration continues to separate hundreds of migrant children from their parents despite a federal court ruling that ordered an end to this cruel practice. ACLU reports that more than 700 children were taken from their parents between June 2019 and May 2019.

History of child family separations

Sadly, family separations at the hands of our federal government are nothing new. During slavery, enslaved adults were routinely separated from their children for both profit and spite. From the late 1800s until the 1970s, Native American children were regularly taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools to force assimilation.  During World War II, Japanese-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, were removed from their homes and incarcerated often resulting in the separation of the family.

The Impact of Child-Family Separations

Decades of research document that forced child separations have long-term health and psychological impacts on children. The research verifies increased risk for mental health problems, poor social functioning, insecure attachment, and disrupted stress reactivity.  Reunited children can experience difficulty with emotional attachment to their parents, self-esteem, and physical and psychological health. These impacts not only affect young children. Separation during adolescence and its associated stressors can have long-term implications for teenagers.

According to Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, separation can also cause developmental issues. After visiting a child shelter in Texas last year, she said, "This type of trauma can be long-lasting, and it's difficult to recover from this. We know very young children go on to not develop their speech, not develop their language, not develop their gross and fine motor skills and wind up with developmental delays."

Whether these child-parent separations are the explicit goal or unintended consequence of government policy, the impact on children and families is similar. They cause psychological and developmental harm in individuals. They activate fear, intimidation and panic in communities.  And they convey a message about what groups of people should be de-valued and marginalized in society. 

How to Talk with Young People

Young people who have seen or heard what's happening in the news may want to talk about it. Here are some tips and resources.