Infant Mental Health professionals in Massachusetts are critically concerned and deeply opposed to the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice current practice of separating migrant and asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The separation of immigrant parents from their young children is a destructive and cruel practice that directly impacts the healthy development and well-being of these most vulnerable children.
Furthermore, a significant number of young families cross the border to the USA fleeing from traumatic situations like socio-political violence, gang violence, sexual violence, and family violence. The separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border inflicts not only an unnecessary break in this protective bond and risks the mental and physical health of these children now, and as they grow up, but can exacerbate or compound pre-migration traumatic stressors in the child and the parent. These practices amount to what is defined as adverse childhood experiences, or “toxic stress” and can have longstanding negative effects upon a child’s brain development and readiness for society.
Fear has become an approach aimed at discouraging new immigrants and a force against people currently out of status. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes freedom from fear, and fear reduction in the lives of young children is not only an objective of infant mental health practice but a social justice imperative. We consider that the damaging event of separating migrant families, as part of current immigration enforcement activities, represents one of the most insidious ways in which fear is currently used as a mechanism of control and oppression towards this population. Regardless of one’s position on immigrant path to citizenship and measures the US takes to enforce existing law, the practice of separation of children from their families is an egregious human rights violation.
The Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health (MassAIMH) joins the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in strongly opposing this detrimental practice.
The earliest years of life represent the most sensitive and rapid period of brain growth and development. Healthy brain development requires caregivers to provide consistent, predictable, nurturing care. Young children organize their responses to stress and danger around their attachment relationships. These relationships serve as buffers in moments of danger and terror, and also are where development takes place and where children learn about themselves, the world around them, and make meaning of their socio-cultural context. Young children’s perception of safety is closely linked to the presence and perceived safety of their attachment figures and the sudden loss or perception of danger toward these figures (usually the caregivers) has been identified as a strong risk variable for the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in young children. From this perspective, stressors like the abrupt separation of young children from their caregivers can be toxic enough to produce traumatic stress symptoms in these children. Parent-child relationships provide safety, comfort and security supporting children in times of stress and hardship. Several decades of research have shown that infants and young children abruptly separated from their parents experience severe emotional and psychological distress. This distress places children at risk for significant developmental and behavioral disorders in early childhood, in addition to adverse physical and mental health outcomes years later.
We urge the U.S. DHS, DOJ and border authorities to take into account the needs of young children for the emotional and physical safety their parents provide and ensure that no young child is separated from his/her parents.
Jayne Singer, PhD Past and Acting President of MassAIMH Board of Directors
Dorothy Richardson, PhD Past President
M. Ann Easterbrooks, PhD Secretary; Chair, Research Committee
Donna Housman, EdD Treasurer
Ellen Cullen, LMHC Co-Chair, Policy Committee
Aditi Subramaniam, LMHC, R-DMT Co-Chair, Policy Committee
Carmen Rosa Noroña, LCSW, MS Ed., CEIS
Anat Weisenfreund, MS
Claudia M. Gold, MD
Mathieu Bermingham, MD
Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health, Birth to Six Inc. (www.massaimh.org) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit interdisciplinary, professional organization established to promote and support the optimal development of infants, young children, and families through relationship-focused workforce development and advocacy efforts.
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