- The number of children separated from their parents at the border since April is almost equal to the number taken by U.S. child protective services (CPS) every three days.
- Yes, there are differences: The people at CPS almost always mean well. And some of the children taken by U.S. CPS agencies really needed to be taken. But many more didn’t.
- For a young child, no matter who takes him away and no matter what the reason, the trauma is the same.We inflict that trauma needlessly over and over. Now that we’re finally facing up to that needless trauma at the border, shouldn’t we face it, and stop it, wherever it occurs?
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
The cries of the three-year-old girl filled the night. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong, but it must have been something awful – how else to explain why a big man in a uniform had just wrenched her from her mother’s arms and was carrying her away into the night?
Her five-year-old brother thought the same thing: I’ve been a good boy, he said, so he should be able to go home.
This didn’t happen last week at a detention center on the U.S. – Mexico border. The man in the uniform was not a Border Patrol agent. It happened many years ago in California. The man in the uniform was a sheriff’s deputy taking away children in response to what would turn out to be a false allegation of child abuse.
The story of the little girl crying “I’m sorry!” is the story I used to conclude my book, Wounded Innocents. I closed with that story because the cries of that little girl were the cries of almost every young child taken from a parent, no matter where it happens, no matter why it happens.
Now, suddenly, thanks to Donald J. Trump, such stories are all over the news. Now everyone, it seems, is speaking out about the horrible effects of tearing children from their parents.
What separation does to children
“This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents,” begins a story in The Washington Post:
Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.
“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”
But people do it all the time. In fact, it happens more than 270,000 times a year. We just don’t usually notice.
The number of children the Trump Administration admits to tearing from their parents at the border since April – about 2,300 – is nearly as many as the average number U.S. child protective services agencies take away from their parents every three days.
But are there really parallels to what Trump is doing and to the American child welfare system? Is it fair to suggest such parallels? The answer, I think, is no. And yes. And sort-of. And sometimes.
Where there is no comparison
Let’s start with where any such comparison is unfair.
- What Trump is doing is a cold, calculated act of hostage-taking. Administration officials have said as much. They are using these captive, caged children as bargaining chips to get the immigration law they want. No one is even pretending that these actions are meant to help the children. (Well, no one but Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway who seemed to suggest as much on Meet the Press on June 17.)
So on one level a comparison is unfair to the people who work in child protective services agencies, to hundreds of thousands of foster parents, and even to many of the people who staff group homes and institutions. I think many of them get it wrong. But most of them are trying to do the right thing.
- The level of sheer cruelty on the part of Trump and those doing his bidding is so mind-boggling that drawing an analogy to the routine workings of child protective services in 21stCentury America risks being seen, mistakenly, as minimizing what is being done to children at the border.
- The number of children who really needed to be torn from their parents by Donald Trump and those acting on his behalf is exactly zero.The number of children who need to be taken from their parents by child protective services is not zero. Even if the number of children taken away each year could be cut by two-thirds to three-quarters – and I think it could – that still would leave tens of thousands of times when child protective services agencies do the right thing when they take away a child. In those cases, even the enormous trauma of removal is less than the trauma of remaining in their own homes.
Where a comparison is valid
- Some might argue that what Trump is doing is different because there is no due process for the families at the border. The children are simply seized on the spot; the family gets no hearing and no lawyer. In some cases, the children just disappear, and no one seems to know where they are. Is that identical to what happens when CPS takes a child? Of course not.But there are more parallels than people in child welfare want to admit.
For starters, CPS workers and/or law enforcement can and do act like the border patrol in the sense that they can and do seize children entirely on their own authority. That’s what that deputy in California did all those years ago. Yes, there’s a hearing, anywhere from a few days to a week or more later. And sometimes there is a lawyer. Occasionally, there is high-quality defense counsel and genuine due process. So sometimes, it’s very different from what’s happening at the border. But most of the time, it’s an overwhelmed, unprepared lawyer who just met her or his client in the hallway just before the hearing. Similarly, one could argue that child welfare is different because we have a law requiring child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together. But that law routinely is broken with impunity.
So here’s the difference: In the case of what Trump is doing there is no due process. Most of the time, when child protective services does it there is the Potemkin Village version of due process.
- It’s worth remembering that the American child welfare system as we know it today actually began as an assault on immigrant families.The system is rooted not in benevolence but in bigotry. It began with the Donald Trump of his day, a 19th Century Protestant minister in New York City named Charles Loring Brace. He so hated and feared New York City’s Catholic immigrants that he set up an entire system of so-called “orphan trains” to take away their children and ship them off to farms in the south and the Midwest. Many of the children were not orphans. Some were treated little better than slaves.
- Child welfare also was used in an attempt to effectively eradicate the one group of Americans who are not immigrants or their descendants – Native Americans.First, Indian children were confiscated and consigned to hideous orphanages in a systematic attempt to, in the words of the head of one such school, “kill the Indian, save the child.” Melissa Harris Perry called the orphanages an “explicit cultural extermination mission.”
That didn’t stop a century ago. A successor policy with similar goals, this time involving the forced removal of Indian children for adoption by white families, lasted until the late 1960s. Even now, the federal law to prevent such abuses from happening again, the Indian Child Welfare Act, is under constant attack from latter-day successors to Charles Loring Brace.
- The parallels are not just historic. Racial bias pervades American child welfare today. That bias is compounded by the arrogance of many in child welfare who insist that their field is so special and they are so wonderful that such bias does not even exist. When a New York Times story called foster care the new “Jane Crow,” the story wasn’t talking about the Mexican border, it was discussing the system in New York City.
- Just as rich people don’t have to flee their countries on foot to reach the U.S. border, rich people are not targeted by child protective services.The system regularly confuses poverty with neglect and tears children from their mothers’ arms because those mothers are poor. It doesn’t do it with the same malicious intent, but that’s no comfort for the child.
Taking children from battered mothers
- Among the targets of the Trump administration: migrants seeking asylum afterfleeing domestic violence in their home countries. In other words, the Trump policy calls for tearing apart families where the mother’s sole “crime” is to be a victim of domestic violence. That one is standard operating procedure in some American child protective services agencies right now. It took a class-action lawsuit to curb it in one state – that leaves 49 where the children of domestic violence victims still can be fair game.
Read the stories of some of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit (for which the co-counsel was my organization’s Vice President) and see if they sound any different from the stories we’re hearing now at the border.
- The conditions in which children are held can be appalling.Think holding children in cages is unique to the current crisis? Hardly. Year, after year after year, American journalists expose hideous conditions in group homes “residential treatment centers” and other institutions used by American child protective services agencies. Sometimes, they’re even literally parked in cars. There is an entire industry of parking place shelters that actually claims it’s a good idea to place children in their institutions right after they’re removed from their homes.
In an otherwise excellent story, the Associated Press declared that “…the nation’s child welfare system ended the use of orphanages over concerns about the lasting trauma to children…” But they didn’t. They’ve just been rebranded.
And there’s something else the two systems have in common:
Here’s what Matt Smith and Aura Bogado the Center for Investigative Reporting just reported concerning the immigrant detention system:
President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy is creating a zombie army of children forcibly injected with medications that make them dizzy, listless, obese and even incapacitated, according to legal filings that show immigrant children in U.S. custody subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs.
And here’s what an investigation of the California child welfare system by Karen de Sa, then with the San Jose Mercury News (and now continuing her excellent work at the San Francisco Chronicle) found in 2014:
With alarming frequency, foster and health care providers are turning to a risky but convenient remedy to control the behavior of thousands of troubled kids: numbing them with psychiatric drugs that are untested on and often not approved for children.
Yes, a foster family is the first choice when American CPS agencies intervene, but some young children continue to be institutionalized. And placing a child in a foster home, even a very good one, doesn’t erase the pain. Some of the children separated at the border are, in fact, in foster homes. They are still in anguish. “The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep,” the foster mother of one such child told The New York Times. “Then it turned into ‘just moaning and moaning.’”
“Home-like” is not the same as home
To the extent that any good may come from this horror it’s the simple fact that journalists may be waking up to the fact that separation of a child from a parent is an inherent trauma; period, end-of-story.
This can be seen by the fact that journalists and others finally are refusing to be suckered by what a shelter happens to look like. Over more than 40 years I’ve read scores of treacly stories about group homes and shelters which go on and on about how great they look, as though somehow that’s a substitute for love. Inevitably, in these stories, someone says “How can you call us an institution? We’re so home-like!”
This Washington Post story started out exactly the same way; but then veered off in an entirely different and far more accurate direction, describing the torment of children who were not comforted in the least by the pretty surroundings. The Times story about the child in a good foster home made the same point. Finally, it seems, we’re learning the difference between “home-like” and home.
For the infant or young child suddenly taken away by a stranger, it doesn’t matter if the stranger works for child protective services, a local sheriff, or the Border Patrol. It doesn’t matter if the reason she was taken is that her mother just crossed the U.S. border after fleeing poverty and persecution abroad, or if the mother is an impoverished American citizen struggling here at home, or even, research tells us, if the mother has a drug problem.
For the child, the trauma of removal is the same.
Their heart rate still goes up. Their body still releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones still can start killing off dendrites. And in time the stress still can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.
In short, the effects are catastrophic.
Surely if you’re going to inflict that much catastrophe on a child, you’d better be damn sure that what you’re taking the child from really is worse, and there is absolutely nothing less traumatic that you can do instead. Child protective services agencies flunk that test every day.
ProPublica has published audio, smuggled out of a detention center. The children are crying for their mothers and fathers.
All over America, in foster homes, group homes and institutions, American children taken from their parents by American child protective services workers are crying the same way. Some of them probably are calling out “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
It would be ironic if it was the sheer evil of a policy enacted by Donald J. Trump that finally made us really listen – and do something about it.
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org This post also appears on the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog, www.nccprblog.org