THE BLOG

What's Being Done to Ease Detained Children's Trauma?

08/15/2014 03:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2014

My heart aches as I've learned that of the thousands of Central American children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, as many as 800 are less than five years old -- and as many as 94 of these children aren't even a year old.

As a mother, as an early child care advocate and as a policy analyst, I think it's time we reflect on the treatment of these children and what it means to their emotional and future well-being.

My organization, the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, has long advocated for resources that support the earliest years in a child's life. Our publication, Primeros Pasos, articulates what research has shown: an infant's brain development depends on healthy and consistent parenting that fosters social-emotional bonding. This literally shapes the architecture of the brain in the first three years.

As an early learning advocate I ask, how will the trauma that these infants have experienced impact their future well-being? What mental health and trauma assessments and services have been put in place? Children, especially infants and toddlers, need to be held, cared for and loved. They need someone to talk to them, read to them and sing to them -- to meet their most basic needs requires 24-hour care. If these children have been separated from their parents, compounding their suffering with detention is cruel, unnecessary and detrimental to their development.

As a mother, I think of my daughter. Although she's now a grown woman, I remember her as she was at four years old -- energetic, a lover of stories and games and curious about how the world worked. My memory of her as a pre kindergartener -- of her innocence and vulnerability -- haunts me as I think of these infants and children losing their childhoods.

These children arrive in detention centers crying, scared and tired -- escaping from violence and extreme poverty in their home countries. Many of them have survived a treacherous trek through Mexico, carrying the burden of toxic stress and trauma. World leaders have called the influx of these tiny asylum-seekers a humanitarian emergency.

As a policy analyst I implore decision-makers seek sensible solutions that prioritize treating the trauma these children have endured. As a compassionate nation, it's our duty to humanely treat and protect all children. As President Obama once said, "Caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged."

A new study by Child Trends shows adverse childhood experiences -- like witnessing violence, or being separated from a parent -- are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on their health. This can include depression, cardiovascular disease and higher risks for substance abuse and aggression. What is being done to ease their trauma?

As Congress takes its summer break, legislators shouldn't lose sight of the long-term effects that short-term solutions can have. Detaining children is a serious problem. We've all seen pictures or read about the conditions of the overcrowded facilities these children are placed in. How can these spaces adequately supply children the nourishment, care and room they need? Babies need space to crawl, children need space to run and play.

Rather than doing what is in the best interest of these children, we're amplifying their distress.

After last week's egregious bill passed by the House, I'm distraught by what appears to be an autopilot response to this crisis -- a castigatory approach by Congress that further fuels hate and endangers these youths. While I know there aren't any easy answers, to implement policies that are punitive and don't foster the well-being of children, our most vulnerable population, is unconscionable.