Separating women and children at the border would be bad for them, and for Texas

Photo by AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool

The current child welfare system in Texas is already stressed in its efforts to meet the bare minimum standards for kids in foster care with a lack of homes, of trained professionals and of services for children who have experienced trauma. This results in damaging placements and outcomes — as cited in the recent Children’s Rights’ lawsuit against the state.

This caustic combination of an overwhelmed and under-resourced system could potentially get even worse under U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelley proposed regulations to separate children from parents at the Mexican Border. Kelly’s proposal, which intends to “deter people from Central America” from crossing the border at any cost, may indeed bare many costs to Texas.

That will appear first as a child welfare system struggling to redefine itself as a safe, effective place for children already in foster care, is suddenly burdened with unprecedented challenges. The second cost will be the approximately $24,000cost per child in foster care per year. The third will be for the long-term costs to society to care for children whose multiple adverse childhood experiences put them at significant risk for compressed stress symptoms such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, Alliance for Infant Mental Health and a host of other national organizations focused on children’s health and well-being have publicly denounced this proposal, urging the federal government to treat families “with dignity and respect” and asking “that they not be exposed to conditions that may further harm or traumatize.”

Why have these groups publicly denounced Kelley’s suggestion to separate children from their parents at the border? Decades of research unequivocally tells us the parent-child relationship is critical to a child’s safety, comfort and security. This relationship provides a protective bond, an interruption to which is traumatic and places infants and young children at risk for significant developmental and behavioral disorders in early childhood and later years.

Separating children from their parents during traumatic events, such as fleeing one’s country due to war and violence, is harmful to their mental health — but for infants and toddlers it is devastating. Relationships during the first three years of life are critical for building neural connections that lead to high cognitive skills and strong mental health, research shows.

In contrast, the absence of such relationships, or the sudden removal of such relationships, throws a child into deep stress. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “exposure to such stress early in life can result later in life as deficits in working memory, attention, and inhibitory control.”

In looking to build a Texas that leads the country with a strong economy, we must ensure we’re giving children strong starts. Separating children from their families will not only inhibit children’s healthy development but incur long-term costs to Texas citizens for untreated mental health issues.

We implore Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelley and US Customs and Border Protection to consider the needs of infants and young children for emotional and physical safety by assuring that no young child is separated from his or her parents.

Sadie Funk

Executive director, First3Years