Keeping Families Together

by Taryn Yates, LMSW: a former board member of the Idaho Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the grants manager and planner for the the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund/Prevent Child Abuse Idaho.

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By now, most of us have seen the images of children being separated by their parents at the border. When the story first broke, I had a visceral reaction to the image of the child in the pinkish-red sweater crying while her mother is being searched. My stomach churned, my heart thudded in my chest, and tears burned the backs of my eyes. She is so young- around two years old. Age-wise she fits in the narrow gap between my own two boys. I could see my oldest in her face as I remembered how uncomfortable strangers made him at that age. How quickly he would come running over to me to seek the security of hiding behind my legs. I also remembered my own childhood. How the thought of losing my mother used to be the absolute worst thing I could think of. Now it’s the thought of losing my sons. I feel heart-broken about all of those people living in that nightmare right now. Everything I know as child abuse prevention advocate, a trainer on brain development and trauma-informed services, a mother, and a human being demands the practice of separating children from their families be stopped.

Just two short months ago, The Idaho Childrens Trust Fund/Prevent Child Abuse Idaho along with state and national allies and partners, were celebrating Child Abuse Prevention month. Our symbol, the pinwheel, represents the carefree childhood that we believe all children should have. We spent the month sharing our vision with the public and educating people on the importance of positive and negative experiences on brain development- specifically during the early years of life. We emphasized how factors such as parental resilience and nurturing and attachment play a pivotal role in offsetting the effects of stress on a child.

The importance of attachment in child development cannot be overstated. Babies are born with a biological imperative for connection from a responsive adult. Without it, they will wither and can even die. The love and attention of a baby’s mother, father and other caregivers, create the foundation of its developing brain. Forcibly separating children from their parents is an attachment trauma that causes severe stress that the brain processes in the same way as physical abuse. This negative effect is doubled as the separation also denies them the touch and connection they need for brain development. If it is not remedied immediately, consequences include a lower IQ, underdeveloped social and emotional competence, and possible emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD- all of which will follow them into adulthood.
I know there is a lot of conflicting information out there about the ages of the separated children and the origin of policy that is causing all this; I saw it while scrolling on my phone as I lay next to my three year old, waiting for him to finally fall asleep, Wednesday night. My eyes glanced over multiple Facebook arguments between old acquaintances, family members, and friends across the political spectrum. Then I stopped to read about these “tender-age” facilities where they take the youngest of the separated children and suddenly none of the bickering mattered anymore. When my son asked me why I was crying, I couldn’t answer for a full minute. I had no idea how to explain it to him. Eventually I managed to say “they are taking babies away from their mommies and daddies. And it’s wrong. Mommies need their babies and babies need their mommies. They should be kept together. Always always.” “Always always?” He repeated. “Yes.” I said. Because sometimes, it’s just that simple.

Post script: Even in light of Trump’s new executive order, which directs agents to detain families together, we are uncertain as to how that will play out in reality or what will happen to children who continue to be detained without their parents. We must remain vigilant to educate leaders and advocate for the wellbeing of all children.