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Separation Stress May Permanently Hurt Migrant Children

Immigrant families walk along a sidewalk on their way to a respite center after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sunday, June 24, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Immigrant families walk along a sidewalk on their way to a respite center after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sunday, June 24, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Separation Stress May Permanently Hurt Migrant Children
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At least 2,300 children are living in government shelters after being separated from their parents who were trying to enter the United States without permission.

Last week President Donald Trump signed an order directing officials to keep families together whenever possible.

The issue of families trying to enter the U.S. without permission is complex. But for one mother and son, being reunited was a chance for joy.

On Friday, one woman from Guatemala cried as she held her young son for the first time in a month. Border agents separated them after she crossed the border without permission in May.

"I love you. I love you," she repeated in Spanish as she kissed him. The mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, brought legal action against the U.S. government for separating her from her seven-year-old son. The lawyer who helped her worked for free.

Guatemalan Migrant Mother, Son Reunited
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The U.S. government has placed some of these children in shelters throughout the U.S. Some of these places are hundreds of miles away from Texas in other states.

U.S. law requires the separation of children from older family members who have been caught at the border under some conditions.

But doctors are worried about the health effects separation might have on the children.

The American Medical Association is a professional organization for doctors. It has warned that these children could suffer serious health problems that could last a lifetime as a result of being separated from their families.

Dr. Colleen Kraft is the president of the American Association of Pediatrics. She has taken an active part in speaking about the needs of these children. She warned that children who are exposed to extreme stress do not develop language or other skills normally. Kraft said this is caused by the trauma of being taken from their parents.

Trauma causes the body to produce high levels of stress hormones. Kraft said these hormones can hurt brain cells, affect the heart and cause children to act younger than they are. Some will start wetting themselves or their beds. Some develop behavior problems.

"It may take a long time for this trauma to be resolved and these children to be healed."

Dr. Lisa Fortuna is a child psychiatrist at Boston University Medical School. Fortuna works with refugee children separated from their parents. She says the family separations have been going on for a long time. She noted that it is very hard on children, no matter what their age is.

"Multiple kids tell me about feeling very cold, not eating enough, not having support of their parents or adults that care about them.”

Fortuna added that the children are usually extremely unhappy and upset.

Care givers at some of the centers where the children are being held say they are not permitted to touch even very young children. These rules were put in place for teenagers, but Myriam Goldin, a social worker who specializes in treating traumatized children, says touch is very important, especially for small children.

"When you rock a child, they can hear your heart rate. You can hear their heart rate, and it is through that co-regulation, children can be soothed."

Goldin is one of the people who established the Gil Institute for Trauma, Recovery and Education in Virginia.

Fortuna says a parent's touch teaches a child that they are being taken care of and loved. She says if children are not touched, they can become sad and withdrawn. They do not learn how to relate to others. They lose the ability to trust. They can stop expressing emotion even if they are returned to their parents.

Goldin points to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on adverse childhood experiences. The study found that early childhood experiences have a strong effect on a person’s future.

Goldin says the study proves scientifically that if the needs of children are not met, long-term mental and physical health problems can result.

Not every child separated from their family will have permanent health problems, but young children are the most likely to be hurt. The separation from a parent can add to the stress they may have already experienced in unsafe conditions in their home countries.

I’m Susan Shand.

Carol Pearson reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

trauma – n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

hormones – n. a natural substance that is produced in the body and that influences the way the body grows or develops

resolve – v. to end or come to a conclusion

rock – v. to move a baby or child with rhythm

soothe – v. to calm someone

adverse –adj. not good