When I was a little girl growing up in the Orchards of Lewiston, Idaho, in the 1950s, it was a wonderful adventure to take the bus downtown with my mom, something we did perhaps once a month. I remember passing under the canopy of trees on Eleventh Avenue, the thrill I got from pulling the string that signaled the driver that ours was the next stop and the joy of sitting at the soda fountain inside Newberry’s on Main Street enjoying a burger and shake.
But one day when I was four, the adventure turned into a nightmare.
Somehow, I had gotten separated from my mom. I remember the shock of suddenly realizing she was nowhere near. I ran frantically from aisle to aisle, the store suddenly becoming a terrifying maze, my heart pounding. I called out loudly, repeatedly, urgently, “Mama! Mama! Where are you, Mama?!” I was desperately frightened and remembered thinking, “What if I can’t find her? What if I never see her again?”
Maybe only a few minutes passed before Mom found me and gave me an earful for wandering off. But it seemed like an eternity. The fact that I remember this incident with painful clarity all these years later is significant because it speaks to the inevitable trauma being experienced by little children, some as young as 18 months, who are forcibly taken from their mothers at the U.S. border.
I imagine the terror these children experience, which multiplies my short-lived anxiety many times over, and fear the imprint of anguish will stay with them all their lives. They cannot understand why they are being taken away from their mothers; they cannot be sure they will ever see their mothers again. And their mothers must be no less terrified to lose their children to nameless, faceless bureaucrats who, in the indifferent words of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will see to it that “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
In a recent guest opinion in the Washington Post, Jaana Juvonen, a professor of development psychology at UCLA, and Jennifer Silvers, an assistant professor of developmental neuroscience at UCLA, make a compelling case for the proposition that separating vulnerable children from their parents is not only inhumane, but torture. They write:
“Children arriving at the U.S. border in search of asylum are frequently a particularly vulnerable population. In many cases fleeing violence and persecution, they also encounter hunger, illness and threats of physical harm along their hazardous journey to the border. This combination of experiences puts migrant children at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Such anxiety and mood disorders can be debilitating and intractable, particularly when they start in childhood. . . . The practice of separating families at the border is reprehensible and – based on science – goes against international and U.S. law, because the suffering it inflicts constitutes torture of children.”
Now imagine the exponential damage done to children who were not only taken from their parents at the border but are now unaccounted for. Credible news services tell us that as many as 1,500 children seized from their mothers at the border are now “lost.” For those children and their parents, the question of reunification may not be one of “When?” but “Whether?” There is no certainty that they will see one another again. Happy reunions– or reunions of any type – are not a given.
Several people familiar with the failed bureaucratic response to protecting migrant children taken from their parents express concern that the children could be subjected to various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, and even human trafficking.
There is no time to waste. Our nation has a moral obligation to find these missing children and reunite them with their parents. This is a national imperative because for these children, every minute of separation from their mothers is not just painful, it’s torture.