By Peggy Decker, Cannon Falls
I don't often speak in public, but our government's current family separation policy is so wrong and so damaging to children that I have no choice. I am here to speak for the children.
I had the privilege of being a pediatrician in this community for 22 years. When I met families in the hospital, birth center or clinic, I never asked about politics, religion or citizenship status, because it didn't matter.
It doesn't matter because every parent, every family wants the best for their child: they want to provide a safe secure home with enough food and clean clothing. They want to know how to care for their child and they delight in their child's development, intelligence, growth, good health and energy. They worry when things aren't right, and they want it to get better.
Throughout my medical training and career, I learned a lot about what it takes for a child to thrive. The most essential element is a strong attachment to a safe adult caregiver and buffering them from childhood trauma. I am going to call that safe adult caregiver Mom for short, but it can be a grandmother, a father, an aunt, a brother, or any adult really.
To promote this essential attachment:
We encourage Mom to hold her baby skin to skin in the first hour of life, and to respond to their baby's first cry in those early weeks.
I saw this strong attachment by infants 4 months of age in clinic. The baby looks at me with concern as I approach, then looks to Mom. If Mom is happy and relaxed, the baby smiles and plays with me; if Mom is worried or fearful, baby withdraws and cries.
This attachment is why bedtime is so difficult for toddlers, because they fear separation and uncertainty.
This strong safe attachment is what allows the child to venture out and explore the world. If a child is free from worry and fear, they can learn and grow and develop and thrive.
Some of my fellow pediatricians have been to the border detention facilities and told us what they have seen. And it is horrific. Toddlers and children and teens are cold, hungry, sleep deprived, dirty and sometimes ill ... and alone with strangers.
What happens when a young child is separated from Mom, especially in these kinds of conditions? They aren't just sad or unhappy. They have lost the person who can comfort them, explain things to them, protect them. They lose trust in Mom because she didn't keep them safe. Their brain and body is flooded with stress hormones and they stay on high alert not for hours, but for days, and weeks.
This is the definition of toxic stress. Inflammation marks our DNA and damages the heart and blood vessels.
When this toxic stress happens when a child's brain is developing, the stress pathways in the brain are fast tracked and strengthened and other normal developmental brain connections are cut away or pruned. Healthy brain connections are damaged or destroyed. That means the child's brain is changed permanently.
Even if they are reunited with Mom, their life path has been forever changed. They may stay angry or sad that Mom did not protect them. They may fall behind in their skills, they can't regulate emotions, they have trouble paying attention, they withdraw or act out. Their fight, flight, or freeze stress response is on a hair trigger. And their capacity to trust people who love them is damaged, potentially stressing future relationships.
But kids are resilient, they'll get over it. WRONG!
The really bad things that happen to kids are cumulative. They add up. Things like a parent divorce, an alcoholic parent, or the emotional abuse and physical neglect at a U.S. border detention facility are called adverse childhood events or ACEs. We have known for decades that the more ACEs you have, the worse it gets. Your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, COPD, mental health problems and risky behaviors goes up, while your education, earnings and life expectancy go down. If you have six or more ACEs, you can expect to die at 60 instead of 80 on average.
A few definitions from the Center for Disease Control that apply here:
• Emotional abuse refers to behaviors that harm a child's self-worth or emotional well-being. Examples include name calling, shaming, rejection, withholding love, and threatening.
• Neglect is the failure to meet a child's basic physical and emotional needs. These needs include housing, food, clothing, education, and access to medical care.
Let that sink in. Our government is committing child abuse.
I and other pediatricians develop a keen awareness for a child's true distress cries of pain and serious illness and we are trained to jump in to avert catastrophe. Our inability to answer these children's cries for help is heartbreaking.
We must stop family separation now. We must offer trauma based care to these families to try to repair the damage done. We can reach out to those in our community who are recovering from similar trauma with understanding and support. We need to help these families who have been harmed. And we need to contact our legislators and demand that this child abuse by our government end.