Guest Commentary

Children separated from families could suffer effects far into the future

Detainees are seen outside tent shelters used to hold separated family members, Friday, June 22, in Fabens, Texas.
Detainees are seen outside tent shelters used to hold separated family members, Friday, June 22, in Fabens, Texas. AP

On a drizzly morning 13 years ago, my 2-year-old daughter wandered away from me. Her brothers had just completed a kids’ fun run and were eager to get the post-run snacks. While helping them load their plates, I turned my back on my daughter for a moment.

When I turned back around, she was gone. I feared she hadn’t wandered away, but had been taken from me.

It was less than five frantic minutes before a stranger heard me screaming my daughter’s name and brought her back to me. Even today I can physically feel the panic in my chest at the memory of being separated from her, and also the relief of being reunited.

I was overwhelmed by the news this month of children being taken from their caregivers at our southern border, with neither the children nor their parents knowing if they will ever be together again.

Like many, I was overjoyed at the news of an executive order ending this cruel policy. I am grateful for the loud and strong voices who advocated for these children and families, but we must pay careful attention to what really happened. The news stories of the legal battles to ensue are nowhere near as anger-inducing, but they are equally important.

As a nation, we listened to the cries of other people’s children and found it intolerable. But the presidential administration has indicated there is no plan in place to reunite the more than 2,300 children who have already been separated from their parents. In fact, there are reports some parents have already been deported without their children.

Today we must ask: Will these parents ever feel the relief of being reunited with their children? We are talking about the lives of children — and every day counts.

The negative effects on these children could last a lifetime. Not surprisingly, the research on ACES, or adverse childhood experiences, has shown early stressful life events often lead to depression and substance abuse.

ACES affect not only the brain but also the physiology of the entire body, creating an imbalance in stress chemicals leading to diabetes, heart disease and early death. Reuniting these children with their caregivers as soon as possible is the best way to mitigate the stress they are experiencing.

By continuing the “zero-tolerance” border policy, the president’s executive order last week fails to provide a long-term solution to the heinous tragedy of family custody. Detention facilities are no place for children. To quote the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Conditions in U.S. detention facilities, which include forcing children to sleep on cement floors, open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities and extremely cold temperatures, are traumatizing for children.” As a society, we must continue to speak up and demand better for the children.

As a doctor practicing in our community, I am fortunate to care for refugee children, who flee unimaginable circumstances to find safety and a better life in our country. A question as simple as how many children are in the family can open the door to memories of children killed right in front of family members or snatched away by soldiers.

Asylum seekers at our southern border are no different from other refugees. They are simply looking for safety for their families. Instead, as soon as they arrived, their children were immediately and indefinitely taken away.

This crisis won’t be over until these children have all been safely reunited with their families and we have laws in place to protect all children — regardless of where they were born.

Kelly Kreisler is chief medical officer of Vibrant Health - Wyandotte Neighborhood Clinics.