The Psychological Toll of Family Separation

The Psychological Toll of Family Separation

The cries of immigrant children separated from their parents, released in an audio clip by the non-profit ProPublica, are haunting. 6-year-old Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid is heard asking Customs and Border Patrol agents at a detention center, “Are you going to call my aunt so that when I’m done eating, she can come and pick me up?” [1]. From May to June alone, 2,342 children have been separated from 2,206 parents at the US-Mexico border [2]. The Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies, including family separation and detention, are indefensible.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacted a “zero-tolerance” policy in which the Trump administration would refer every person caught illegally crossing the border for federal prosecution, including those traveling with children and those seeking asylum [3]. Under this policy parents are transferred from Customs and Border Patrol to the U.S. Marshals Service in order to be tried in court for the misdemeanor of illegal entry. Their children, however, are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement [4]. The detention centers that children are placed in are oftentimes located in warehouses or abandoned stores, and the photos taken of their interiors depict chain-link enclosures and children sleeping on the ground [5]. Allegations of abuse, harassment, and disrespect by staff members are pervasive. In the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas, children recount instances where they were physically forced to take powerful medications without parental consent [6]. A lawsuit representing detainees at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia says the staff routinely taunted and harassed the minors; stripped them of their clothes; confined them to their rooms alone; restrained them in chairs for lengthy amounts of time; and physically abused the them by applying excessive force [7].

The practice of separating children from their parents has lasting psychological effects. A multitude of experts, representing more than 250,000 doctors, over 7,600 mental-health professionals, and 142 organizations, have warned against the Trump administration’s actions [8]. The American Psychological Association says that decades of research indicates that separation leads to “severe psychological distress which results in anxiety, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, withdrawal, aggressive behavior, and decline in educational achievement” [9]. Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, describes the policy as “government sanctioned child abuse” [10]. In fact, nearly a third of all mental health issues are tied to traumatic experiences in childhood [11]. Severing the sacred parent-child bond creates deep wounds that may never truly heal.

After sustained backlash, and repeated (untruthful) assurances that the family separation policy simply did not exist, the Trump administration halted the practice through an executive order on June 20th [12]. The order allows for the “zero tolerance” prosecutions to continue, but instructs the Department of Homeland Security to detain families together in the meantime. Indefinite detention is in flagrant violation of the Flores settlement, which dictates that detention cannot exceed 20 days [13]. In an effort to preserve the executive order, the Trump administration is looking to Congress to override the Flores settlement through legislation. Moreover, the executive order sets out no clear path for the reunification of the thousands of children that have already been separated from their parents in the past year.

Family detention is neither a sustainable nor moral alternative to child separation. While detention as a family alleviates the psychological burden of separation, it still has a profoundly negative effect on those detained. Families would still be held in facilities with track records of abuse and mismanagement. A systematic review of research published in The British Journal of Psychiatry on detained asylum seekers of all ages found that detention was linked to high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder [14]. Another study, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior, found that [15]:

Experiences in detention, even brief stays, are correlated with the onset or significant increase in anxiety, depression, hopelessness and suicidality, as well as feelings of confinement, perceived loss of control, invasion of privacy, and distortions in self-concept, world-view and future orientation. Families report increased feelings of isolation, given their inability to access protective resources in detention (e.g., limited contact with family members in the community, inability to fully practice cultural or religious beliefs, limited opportunities for socialization). Parent-child relationships are negatively impacted, given that a parent’s ability to care for their child is compromised by the constraints of detention. Children face barriers to achieving developmental milestones, given limited education and opportunities for play and recreation. Families lack access to medical and mental health treatment to promote physical and mental wellbeing. Some families have also reported abuse, neglect and inappropriate use of solitary confinement by guards.

These adverse effects are compounded with the trauma incurred within the migrants’ countries of origin and during their long, difficult journeys to the United States.

Effective alternatives to family detention exist. In June 2017, the Trump administration ended the Obama administration’s Family Case Management Program [16]. This program partnered with community-based organizations to provide migrants with personalized case management, referrals for support services, and legal guidance. The program had a 99 percent effectiveness rate, which meant nearly every person enrolled in the program showed up for all required appointments and court hearings [17]. The FCMP costed taxpayers only $36 a day per family in comparison with family detention which costs $319 per person per day [16]. Aside from community-based solutions, other options include the use of GPS devices and ankle bracelets. From 2011 to 2013, over 40,000 immigrants were enrolled in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Alternatives to Detention program which included in-person consultations and GPS monitoring [18]. This program had a 99 percent effectiveness rate, and it costed taxpayers about $10 a day [18]. There is absolutely no reason to subject families to cruel conditions in detention centers.

How can a country of immigrants - a country that beckons the world with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” - turn a blind eye to those in need? Instead of imposing greater psychological harm upon families fleeing unfathomable violence, we must accept them with open arms.


  1. “Listen to children who’ve just been separated at the border”, ProPublica, 

  2. Lind Dara, “New statistics: the government is separating 65 children a day from parents at the border”, Vox, June 19 2018. 

  3. “Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy sowed confusion from start”, CBS News, July 1 2018. 

  4. Cillizza Chris, “The remarkable history of the family separation policy crisis”, CNN, June 18 2018. 

  5. Cullinane Suzannah, “Inside Border Protection’s detention center: chain link fences and thermal blankets”, CNN, June 18 2018. 

  6. “U.S. centers force migrant children to take drugs: lawsuit”, NBC News, June 21 2018. 

  7. Durkee Alison, “Lawsuits allege widespread abuse at immigration detention centers where minors are being held”, Mic, June 21 2018. 

  8. Wan William, “What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’”, The Washington Post, June 18 2018. 

  9. “Statement of APA president regarding executive order rescinding family separation policy”, The American Psychological Association, June 20 2018. 

  10. Keating Daniel, “Why separating kids from parents is torture”, CNN, June 21 2018. 

  11. Gee Dylan, “I study kids who were separated from their parents . The trauma could change their brains forever.” Vox, June 20 2018.

  12. Domonoske Camila and Gonzales Richard, “What we know: family separation and ‘zero tolerance’ at the border”, NPR, June 19 2018. 

  13. “The history of the Flores settlement and its effects on immigration”, NPR, June 22 2018. 

  14. Robjant Katy et al., “Mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers: systematic review”, The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2009. 

  15. Miller Kathryn, “The psychological impact of immigration detention on child and adolescent asylum seekers”, Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior, 2017. 

  16. Epstein Ruthie, “The tried-and-true alternatives to detaining immigrant families”, ACLU, June 22 2018. 

  17. “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Award of the Family Case Management Program”, Department of Homeland Security, 2017. 

  18. “Alternatives to Detention”, Government Accountability Office, November 2014. 


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