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Kids separated from parents at U.S. border can suffer 'toxic stress,' long-term physical and mental damage: expert

The New York Daily News - 6/18/2018

June 18--Children's health experts are speaking out against the Trump administration's policy that separates immigrant children from their parents who enter the country illegally, citing long-term, sometimes irreparable mental and physical damage.

"Children who are exposed to unmitigated stress -- their bodies are releasing stress hormones which effect all systems of the body," Alan Shapiro, medical director of Terra Firma: Healthcare and Justice for Immigrant Children, told the Daily News.

"The immune system, neurological, endocrine -- all are affected," added Shapiro, who's also senior medical director of pediatric programs at Montefiore Medical Center. "Stress that's unmitigated, meaning it's not buffered by a loving caregiver, is toxic stress that leads to long-term adverse health outcomes like chronic obesity, cancer, heart disease and mental illness like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder."

Shapiro said these children and their parents are migrating from some of the poorest countries in the world, including Honduras and El Salvador, where they've already faced unimaginable traumas like seeing their friends and parents killed, being subjected to abuse and threats. He said that they've typically fled from home countries where there are no protective services put in place and that this "dislocation from their homes" is a very "unstabling event" in their lives.

"These children have suffered a history of trauma and fear," Shapiro said. "The policy of separating these families is egregious because not only are you causing a trauma, you're also taking away the person in their lives who offers the most comfort and buffer to the stress they're enduring. That's most troubling.

"They come here to protect their children and keep them safe -- ripping them apart fractures that whole sense of family unity and what it represents: safety, love, support."

This new policy by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice is described by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as "zero tolerance." Authorities have been told to detain and prosecute anyone who tries to cross the U.S. border illegally -- even people seeking asylum from violent, dangerous circumstances.

Parents are charged with a crime while their children are separated from them and kept in shelters, like the nearly 1,500 10- to 17-year-old boys currently housed in a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. The facility is pushing the limits on how many children it can house, leading the Trump administration to build "tent cities" near the Mexican border to take on the overflow.

"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Sessions said in a May speech to Arizona law-enforcement officials. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

The administration's new policy of separating families is not mandated by law. Under President Barack Obama's administration, facilities were in place specifically for the detention of illegal immigrant families, where women and children were held while they waited for their cases to be processed.

"There is no law that says we have to separate them, as some are saying," Shapiro told The News. "Homeland Security, condoned by the President, is creating a trauma caused by artificial circumstances."

He said children who are exposed for prolonged periods of time to the toxic stress of being detained and separated from their parents suffer "incredible learning disabilities," and delayed growth.

He recalled one case that involved a child who was "ripped out of his father's arms" who stopped speaking. Some, he said, turn to self-harm and self-biting out of sheer frustration and depression.

Shapiro said pediatricians and the agencies he works with, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are already trying to stop the White House's planned "tent cities" out of fear that some children will die from the elements.

"The temperatures are going to rise over 100 degrees -- conditions that will cause children to succumb to the heat," Shapiro said. "We're advocating as hard as we can to prevent this madness."

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(c)2018 New York Daily News

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