POSTED MARCH 14, 2017, 10:00 AM
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications
In fiscal year 2016, 59, 692 unaccompanied children and 77, 676 individuals in family units were apprehended at the border. These are not drug dealers or terrorists; they are people looking for a better life. It’s important to remember that children don’t immigrate, they flee; they come from poverty or violence, or both.
And as children, they deserve care and compassion. Their needs are different from the needs of adults — and they cannot care for themselves. Not only that, there is extensive research that shows that toxic stress in childhood can harm the developing brain and developing body, and lead to not just short-term but long-term physical and mental health problems. What we do, what we let happen, can literally last a lifetime.
That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a policy statement entitled “Detention of Immigrant Children.” It is one of several statements the organization has made regarding the health and well-being of immigrant children in response to recent events, including President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and news reports that the Trump administration is considering separating mothers and children at the border.
Children should never be separated from their parents or caregiver. This causes significant stress for children. Not only is the separation itself stressful, but families also serve to buffer children from further stress. Families may be separated in detention or processing centers, especially if there are male family members; only one family detention center accepts men, and the processing centers where families arrive first are segregated by gender.