Squalid conditions, separation from parents can produce long-lasting trauma

Published 6:53 am Saturday, July 6, 2019

By Alisa Roth

MPR News/90.1

The reports coming out of detention facilities where children are being held on the southern border are spurring protests in Minnesota and many other parts of the country.

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The revelations include: children who haven’t been able to bathe or change their clothes since crossing the border days or weeks earlier, not enough food, 1-year-old and 17-year-old children getting the same rations, no fruits or vegetables or milk, outbreaks of flu and lice infestation and no soap available for washing.

But the risk to the children goes beyond their physical health, said Katie Lingras, a child psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota. Separating children from their parents or caregiver can have real effects on mental health, she said.

A parent or trusted caregiver can help mitigate the effects of such traumatic experiences, Lingras said, by helping children understand what is happening and why. In this situation not only have the children being detained been separated from caregivers unexpectedly, but the effects are compounded by the fact that they don’t have adults they know to help them process what’s happened to them.

The situation is “effectively kind of a how-to for how to ensure the worst outcomes from a trauma because we’re taking away those protective caregivers who can help them through the experience,” Lingras said.

In many cases, very young children are being cared for by children who are not much older. Lingras says the children who are forced to take responsibility for others are effectively being robbed of their own childhoods.

And this kind of trauma can have a lasting effect on children.

“What we end up seeing in the long-term,” Lingras said, “are those persistent concerns like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder. And those are things we can see even in those young children, those 0- to 3-year-olds and that can persist all the way into later childhood or adulthood.”