Open Letter from Mental Health Professionals
This Open Letter was written by Dana Sinopoli and signed by over 1,100 mental health professionals and 11 organizations.
We would like you to remember what it feels like to be a child. To take a moment and remember how big and sometimes scary the world felt and how, if you were lucky, the adults in your life represented security and safety. We want you to remember what little say you had over what you did and what happened to you and that even though this was frustrating, some part of you trusted that your parents knew what was best for you. And that your physical and psychological survival depended on them.
Between October 2017 and April 2018, 700 children have been separated from their parents at the border. One-hundred of these children are under 4 years old. These children are thrust into detention centers often without an advocate or an attorney and possibly even without the presence of any adult who can speak their language. We want you to imagine for a moment what this might be like for a child: to flee the place you have called home because it is not safe to stay and then embark on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination, only to be ripped apart from your sole sense of security with no understanding of what just happened or if you will ever see your family again. And that the only thing you have done to deserve this, is to do what children do: stay close to the adults in their lives for security.
It seems quite clear that the adults who are enacting a Zero Tolerance policy at our borders are not remembering what it is like to be a child. How many of us have memories of our parents suddenly disappearing in a grocery store and the temporary terror we felt? Not only is the terror these children experience at the border not temporary, these children have no way of knowing if and when they are ever going to see their parents again. As the Trump administration defends this separation policy, there is no mention of the impact this has on the children themselves. It appears that the only way to justify this policy is to completely disconnect from either one or both of the following realities: that these are children; and that children are affected by what happens to them.
From decades of research and direct clinical experience, we know that the impact of disrupted attachment manifests not only in overwhelming fear and panic at the time of the separation, but that there is a strong likelihood that these children’s behavioral, psychological, interpersonal, and cognitive trajectories will also be affected. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which is funded in part by the Department of Health and Human Services, notes that children may develop post traumatic responses following separation from their parents and specifically lists immigration and parental deportation as situations of potentially traumatic separation. To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.
We find ourselves again upon a time where we will one day utter “how could we have let that happen?” We cannot afford to forget that there is a history of separating children from their parents: during slave auctions; during the forced assimilation of American Indians; and during the Holocaust. The reverberations of these barbaric stains on our history are still felt today and future generations of these original victims will inherit the intergenerational transmission of these traumas. To try and argue that this policy of ripping children from their parents at the border is somehow different from the systematic traumatization of children during the times of slavery, forced assimilation, and the Holocaust is to disregard history. To somehow convince ourselves that this systematic traumatization of children has no bearing on the lives of these children and no impact on the legacy of our country is to be living in an alternate universe. And to not care about the impact these policies have on these children is to succumb to the worst potential of humanity.
We, the undersigned, implore you to recognize what is at stake when children are taken from their mothers and other attachment figures. As psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, we have a responsibility to report any concern of child maltreatment. This policy of separation is an indefensible violation of children’s civil rights and we uphold our responsibility as mandated reporters to sound the alarm.
This Open Letter was written by Dana Sinopoli and signed by over 1,100 mental health professionals and 11 organizations. Mental health professionals, organizations, and members of the general public can sign to support this letter at https://childsworldamerica.org/stop-border-separation/
Dana Sinopoli, Psy.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Philadelphia. In addition to clinical experience which has included working with children and adults, she has conducted workshops to police and attorneys on trauma-informed forensic interviewing and the effects of trauma on the brain and has taught a course on psychological trauma at the graduate school level. She is currently completing psychoanalytic training at the Institute for Relational Psychoanalysis of Philadelphia.