‘The Time Has Come to Take a Stand’

Posted on: June 19, 2018 Topics: child health, immigration, politics and health, Q&A

In the last six weeks, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Reports, images, and audio from the camps where a rapidly growing number of children are being held in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services have ignited outrage from advocates, politicians, and individuals across the political spectrum. Democrats in Congress have recently introduced legislation that would keep detained families together.

Among those speaking up against forced family separation is the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM), which put out a statement on June 19. The practices at the border “are exacting irreparable physical, neurological, and psychological harm on already strained children and families, many of whom are fleeing from life-threatening conditions in their home countries,” the authors wrote.

Monica Wang, assistant professor of community health sciences, is the chair of SBM’s Civic and Public Engagement Committee. She led a group of experts in child and family health and violence and trauma prevention in writing the statement.

Following the SBM statement, Wang talked with SPH about the “zero tolerance” policy and why now is the time to speak up.

Why is the Society of Behavioral Medicine making a statement on forced family separation?

The Society of Behavioral Medicine is a multidisciplinary, national organization of clinicians, educators, and scientists dedicated to studying the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities, and populations. We represent experts in child and family health and violence and trauma prevention. The current immigration policy and practices that force separation of children from their families at the border is severely and systemically compromising the health and well-being of children and families seeking protection in our nation.

How does this policy affect health?

This policy subjects children to extreme levels of stress and an adverse childhood experience that leads to predictable and preventable consequences. In the short-term, these include disruption in brain development, neurological damage, developmental delays, and post-traumatic stress disorders. The long-term effects include increased risk of depression, substance abuse, suicidality, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and reduced life expectancy.

Parents and caregivers are also the primary source of helping children cope with extreme stressors, such as trauma experienced during migration and/or from their native countries. The current practices are taking this critical protection away from children and inflicting additional trauma on children and families that can lead to irreparable physical and psychological damage.

The impact of forcefully and involuntarily separating children from their families is already devastating for the thousands of migrant children presently under the Department of Health and Human Services’ custody. Forced and prolonged family separation and the displacement of children in inhumane, unregulated conditions subjects children and families—many of whom are fleeing life-threatening situations—to unnecessary further trauma.

There is also currently no provision in place for migrant children to have legal representation. It is cruel and unjust to expect children, some as young as 2 years and many of whom do not speak English, to be capable of representing themselves in legal proceedings without their parents. The separation of children from their families as a strategy to deter or punish migrants not only jeopardizes children’s legal rights, but also severely violates national and international human rights for the family to exist as a unit.

We can prevent additional harm by immediately halting forced family separation at the border and urging our leaders to instead safeguard the health and well-being of children, regardless of citizenship status, on American soil.

What brought the authors of this statement together?

As the chair of SBM’s Civic and Public Engagement Committee, as an expert in child health and development, as a mother of two, and as an immigrant myself (I came to the US with my mom at the age of 3, and we became naturalized citizens), the time had come to take a stand.

I reached out to experts in our society’s relevant special interest groups—Child and Family Health, and Violence and Trauma—to draft a statement on behalf of SBM on Friday, June 16. The response from several experts across the nation to collaborate on a draft was immediate. Less than three days after I sent the initial call for collaborators (and over Father’s Day weekend no less), we had a draft to send to SBM’s Executive Board for approval prior to release.

The resulting statement is a collaborative effort of Pamela Behrman of the College of Mount Saint Vincent; Virginia Gil-Rivas of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Idia Thurston of the University of Memphis; Elva Arredondo of the San Diego State University School of Public Health; Sheela Raja of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry; Sasha Fleary of Tufts University; myself; the Child and Family Health Special Interest Group; the Violence and Trauma Special Interest Group; the Health Policy Committee; and the Civic and Public Engagement Committee on behalf of SBM.

Why is it important for the public health and medical community to speak up now on immigration and other policy issues? 

The most vulnerable populations in our society are being leveraged in immigration policy. The Society of Behavioral Medicine, along with other national public health and medical organizations across the country, will not compromise on taking a stand against this. The health of our society, communities, families, and individuals is shaped by multiple levels of influence across sectors, including social and foreign policy. That relationship does not have to be unidirectional. We must remember that individuals make up organizations and institutions who make policy-level decisions. We can be a part of the narrative in shaping those decisions. 

There is power in our collective voice. We can—and must—speak up, not only against the practices in question, but all inhumane policies that threaten the health and well-being of people. Here’s what you can do about it: call Congress; donate to legal and humanitarian efforts like Kids in Need of Defense, The Texas Civil Rights Project, the Florence Project in Arizona, The Young Center, and RAICES; join one of the protests around the country on June 30; register and vote in the 2018 mid-term elections; and more.

Michelle Samuels

Read the Society of Behavioral Medicine statement on forced family separation here.

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