Separating Children at the Border Creates Trauma Passed Down Through Generations

More than 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents, jailed in detention centers across the country. The Washington Post reports that US authorities are collecting mug shots of the detained minors, some showing the children in tears. Immigrant children jailed in a converted Walmart in Texas are being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English each morning. At some of the facilities, the children are counted in “prison-style” head counts. In some cases, parents have already been deported, while their children remain in United States custody. For more, we speak with Dr. Dana Sinopoli, a psychologist who penned an open letter condemning the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, more than 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents, jailed in detention centers across the United States. The Washington Post reports that federal authorities are collecting mugshots of the detained minors, some showing the children in tears. Immigrant children jailed in a converted Walmart in Texas are being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English each morning. At some of the facilities, the children are counted in “prison-style” head counts. In some cases, parents have already been deported, while their children remain in US custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Dr. Dana Sinopoli, a psychologist who penned an open letter condemning the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border. The letter has been signed by well over 12,600 mental health professionals. The letter states “children may develop post traumatic responses following separation from their parents and specifically lists immigration and parental deportation as situations of potentially traumatic separation. To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.”

Dr. Sinopoli, welcome to Democracy Now! In these last few minutes that we have, can you talk about what inspired you to write this letter and what exactly happens to children? What are the psychological effects of the separation?

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Yeah, good morning, Amy. I’m happy to be there. I’m going to try and condense this into about five minutes.

So, you know, what compelled me to write this letter was that when I—everything I was reading and everything I was hearing at the end of last month, it was so focused on politics and policy, and there seemed to be nothing that spoke to what this experience was actually like for these children—in a sense, through their own voices, through their eyes, through their minds. And so I wrote a letter. And I asked the audience—and I think I was speaking to the administration, as well—to remember what it was like to be a child. And I think that’s the thing, that we all were children, and we all were dependent on our parents for physical and psychological safety and security. And I think, from that, and then also remembering times when we were abruptly separated from our parents, it evokes an empathy that I think focusing only on politics and policy can often obstruct this connection, this empathic identification with these children. So, I think that’s why the letter kind of connected with so many people, is that it reminded them that we are talking about children with this policy, human children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are some of the psychological effects of not only the detention and separation—and people often forget that these families have come up sometimes spending weeks or coming up from Central America in a really precarious situation for the children, as well as their parents, in the journey to the border.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Absolutely. So we have this compounding trauma. And, you know, I’m reminded of this quotation by a Somali poet named Warsan Shire, and it’s that nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. And so we have the trauma that was experienced in their original country, and then there is the journey itself, which includes witnessing and directly experiencing a number of potentially traumatic events. Then there’s a moment of separation, and then there is the being separated. So we have this compounding trauma on top of trauma.

And, you know, the way—and I’ll just really quickly kind of explain what we know about children separation. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to know that children do best when they’re in closer proximity to their parents. And what we have known for decades is that there are these three kind of phases of separation.

And the first phase is this phase of protest. You know, we see these children inconsolably weeping and screaming for their parents. We have that haunting audio and visual from the border, where is this hope that if I weep, if I scream, Mom and Dad will come back to me. And so we hear this so audibly.

And then the next phase is this phase of despair. And, you know, the reports of these children not playing, not running around, not doing the things that we would expect toddlers and children to do, is this kind of withdrawn state, this kind of collapsing in on themselves.

And then the third is this phase of detachment. And this, we understand, is almost kind of this aloofness, that even just if a child appears to be doing well, that doesn’t necessarily correlate with what they’re actually experiencing inside. And so, even when reunification happens, there is so much going on in this moment, that the child is both filled with joy and anger and fear, and the parent is filled with both relief and guilt. So, in the same moment, there is so much happening for both parent and child. And the trajectory of that affects these children. So, it’s not just the moment of separation, but we know that this carries on throughout their lives for many of these children.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from the letter you wrote: “To try and argue that this policy of ripping children from their parents at the border is somehow different from the systematic traumatization of children during the times of slavery, forced assimilation, and the Holocaust is to disregard history. To somehow convince ourselves that this systematic traumatization of children has no bearing on the lives of these children and no impact on the legacy of our country is to be living in an alternate universe. And to not care about the impact these policies have on these children is to succumb to the worst potential of humanity.” The intergenerational effect of this, Dr. Sinopoli?

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Yes. So, I’ll try and really put this slowly, but we know that that which is so overwhelming to the mind, that for which there are no words, these unspeakable, unformulated traumatic experiences, they get passed down to the next generation. And a really fine example of that is that after 9/11 there was a report in his book, Lost in Transmission, of a sidewalk scene on Fifth Avenue—

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to go to that report in Part 2 of our conversation, Dr. Sinopoli, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for our show. Psychologist Dr. Sinopoli, our guest.