Even assuming the worst, it is hard to imagine that anybody – even in this White House – planned to have Melania Trump’s seemingly heartfelt public statement about cherishing and protecting children utterly neutralized – almost mockingly – by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s ice-cold reiteration of protocols for dealing with immigrant families seeking asylum status in the United States.
But there Sessions was – just hours after the first lady said that “children deserve every opportunity to enjoy their innocence” – talking tough about parents who bring their children across the southern border in an attempt to escape the violence and constant danger in their own countries. Without a hint of compassion in tone or content, Sessions declared that federal agents will arrest parents and detain children, apparently of any age, in facilities separate from the detention centers holding the parents.
As of last month, some 100 of the 700 children detained under these guidelines were under the age of 4. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to understand how horrific this is for both the parents and children caught up in this draconian process. Still, Sessions took a moment to offer advice to parents trying to raise their kids away from the threat of violence: “If you don’t like [these policies], then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
What will become of these toddlers and schoolchildren forcibly separated from their parents by federal policy? Will their innocence be protected as the first lady suggests it should be? If not, these children will face serious consequences as a result of ill-conceived, highly punitive policies promulgated by Justice Department and immigration officials.
Over the past decade, researchers have focused on trying to understand what happens when young children are exposed to severe psychological stress, called “toxic stress,” over extended periods of time. Evidence is clear that these high levels of stress are not only responsible for a variety of psychological and behavioral problems, including in babies and toddlers, but there are also far-reaching consequences associated with prolonged release of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones.
Toxic stress and the associated hormone releases can alter brain architecture, interfere with normal development and result in significant psychological problems into adulthood. What’s surprising is that researchers have also established that chronic medical conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes, appear at higher rates among adults who have experienced toxic stress during early childhood.
It is hard to imagine a more stressful situation for a young child than to be forcibly taken from his or her parents and detained with strangers. Sometimes this unfortunate outcome is necessary when children are the victims of parental violence or severe neglect. But in the case of current U.S. policy as articulated by the attorney general, the “abuser” is the federal government.
Forced separation of children and their parents is “child abuse by government.” And in this case, knowing what we now know about the consequences of severe stress in children, it is no stretch to assert that these new federal policies are not just cruel but also can have lifelong consequences for their child victims.
If Melania Trump meant what she said about children, she might want to organize a heart-to-heart meeting with the attorney general - and with her husband. Maybe the first lady could advocate for policies that reflect the spirit of her new agenda and a commitment to protect vulnerable families seeking safety and opportunity in the United States.
Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician, professor at Columbia University and president emeritus of Children’s Health Fund, is the author of “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st-Century America.”