Splitting families may end, but migrant kids’ trauma needs to be studied

young child at border

FOR FAMILY  Migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border may get a reprieve from a recent policy that resulted in more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents.

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Faced with a growing outcry against separating migrant children from their families at the U.S. border — including this statement from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — President Trump reversed course June 20 and issued an executive order aimed at keeping detained families together.

Scientists, armed with evidence that traumatic events early in life can have dire consequences, had joined lawmakers, public health advocates and concerned citizens to object to the immigration policy. In recent weeks, 2,342 children have been removed from their asylum-seeking families, many held in institutional settings such as a Walmart–turned–children’s shelter and a newly erected tent city.

Traumatic events early in life have been linked to altered brain development and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including mental, emotional and social disorders, as well as an increased risk of suicide. But for reasons that neuroscientists are still puzzling over, some children are astonishingly resilient after trauma.

Despite these scientific clues, it’s unclear how these forced separations will affect any given child. Existing studies of childhood trauma have focused on children in slightly different circumstances, such as institutionalized Romanian orphans. Monitoring the children separated from their families at the southern U.S. border will be important, says Julie Linton, a pediatrician in Winston-Salem, N.C., who is cochair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group. Linton coauthored a recent AAP statement condemning the detention of immigrant children.

“To better understand the short- and long-term impact of immigration-related trauma on developing bodies and minds,” she says, “it is critical to examine the traumatic experiences of children who have been held in detention and those who have been separated from their families.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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