The trauma of separating young children at the border

Being a medical resident is really hard. This is not only due to the infamous number of hours you work, but you are truly responsible for patient care for the first time. That is a heavy responsibility, especially when you constantly feel inadequately prepared. You never feel like you have enough time to read, and you never stop feeling like you could be doing a better job.

Despite the schedule and all that comes with it, I cannot help but try to squeeze in as much of the news cycle as possible (and remain very grateful for NPR’s Up First podcast on my morning drives to the hospital). And what is happening with immigration in our country particularly keeps me up at night. The separation of children from their parents. There are children as young as four months old being taken from their parents. Data shows that up to 5 children are still being separated from their parents each day. And I have often read comments on social media saying more or less that “you are overreacting, the child is too young to even remember this.”

I know how to combat this argument. We have plenty of science behind it. The consequences of early childhood trauma is a well-documented medical fact, and has very harmful sequelae to the children who experience it. “Because infants’ and young children’s reactions may be different from older children’s, and because they may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening or dangerous events, many people assume that young age protects children from the impact of traumatic experiences. A growing body of research has established that young children may be affected by events that threaten their safety or the safety of their parents/caregivers, and their symptoms have been well documented.”

And surely anyone who cares about “family values” also cares about mother-infant bonding? Research shows that “without a good initial bond, children are less likely to grow up to become happy, independent and resilient adults.”

Toxic stress is real and it “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

You are welcome to accept that we are traumatizing young innocent children at the border by separating them from their parents, and tell me that you do not care. Or maybe even more sinister than mere apathy, that these children somehow deserve it.

But as a physician, I cannot in good conscience allow you to deny the fact that our government is traumatizing them. That they will remember. That their development will be affected. And if you support this policy, you are responsible for their pain.

The comments I actually struggle to respond to are the ones that say “I feel bad for the kids that their parents came here illegally” under videos such as this one of children crying, begging to be reunited with their parents. My medical education has not taught me how to treat a cold heart.

As a resident, I know it is hard to pay attention when you are already stretched so thin. And when you do manage to catch another depressing headline, you feel helpless. But I urge you, as providers, to not look away. To pay attention. Our credentials give us a very unique and privileged position, and our voices matter as advocates. These are not just ethical and moral issues, but ones of health that we are more than qualified to address.

You can read the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on family separation.

And I will leave you with a quote from recently passed Nobel Laureate author Toni Morrison: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

Nickey Jafari is an obstetrics-gynecology resident.

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