As the United States government works to reunite migrant children separated from their families, psychologists are warning of the long-term effects on their mental health. They say the children are becoming more likely to face toxic stress, leading to health problems like PTSD and substance abuse.
“As mental health experts, we remain deeply concerned about the continued separation of migrant children from their parents pending immigration proceedings or following the deportation of their parents", says Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association. "The longer these children remain away from their parents in shelters, the greater their distress and the greater the likelihood that they will experience long-term negative effects."
“Decades of psychological research have shown that children and parents may experience toxic stress as a result of lengthy separations", adds Henderson Daniel. "Toxic stress can cause irreparable harm to children’s cognitive development and can lead to a host of mental, social and physical health problems later in childhood and well into adulthood. These problems can include severe psychological distress, PTSD, sleep disturbances, social withdrawal, substance use, aggressive behavior and a decline in educational achievement."
Henderson Daniel's comments came days before government officials announced they've reunited more than 1,800 children ages 5 and over with parents or sponsors. But, they say more than 700 children remain in custody because officials have deemed their parents or relatives not eligible for reunification. The parents of 431 children have already been deported.
NBC News reports a U.S. District judge commended the Trump administration Friday for reuniting hundreds of families, but added "the government is at fault for losing several hundred parents in the process and that's where we go next." Judge Dana Sabraw is requiring written updates every Thursday on still-separated families from the government and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU represents the parents.
APA President Henderson Daniel says if a solution doesn't come soon, officials need to work on alternate plans. “If these children cannot be immediately returned to their parents as ordered by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw", she says, "then they should receive a mental health screening by a qualified health care professional. Based on the outcome of this assessment, they might receive mental health care at the shelter or be moved to a therapeutic foster home to receive the level of care that they need.”
The APA describes therapeutic foster care parents as specially trained to work with children with significant mental health needs. To prepare, the parents take on trauma-informed care education. They also have more pre-service training hours than required for a more traditional foster home, and may be required to do ongoing training hours to be licensed as a therapeutic foster home.
It's not the first time Henderson Daniel has voiced concern about the mental health of migrant children and their caretakers. She's issued three press releases since the end of May, saying “The American Psychological Association stands ready to assist in getting these children the psychological care that they will need during the time they are in U.S. custody and upon their release."
The American Psychological Association is based in Washington, D.C., and describes itself as the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. Members include more than 115,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.