Pediatricians and immigrant advocates in South Texas are sounding the alarm that separating migrant children from their parents is giving them “toxic stress.” Change.org offers a tool kit to protest this trauma. Report after report features distraught children torn from the arms of their parents. This really is a tragic picture, although the parents put themselves at risk by heading across the border in spite of warnings they would be separated from their children.
A deeper question, though, lurks beneath this sudden concern for the welfare of children at the border. The repercussions associated with broken attachments and disrupted bonding are widely known and extensively researched. But why has the spotlight landed on migrant children in particular, when so many others in the United States suffer the same kind of trauma? It seems attachment theory is only relevant to the press when it serves liberal ideological ends.
For children tossed around in foster care, for example, the silence around broken bonding is deafening. It’s as though notions of bonding, attachment, and the developmental needs of children do not exist.
In the current crisis of opioid addiction and foster care, many children form attachments to a family who wants to adopt them, often waiting up to three years for a birth parent or blood relative to come forward or enter drug treatment. These children live in foster care Never-Never Land, but they also bond with a family while they wait. All too often, these children are then ripped out of the only family they have ever known, suffering the trauma of broken attachments, over and over again. This is the tragedy that doesn’t make the news.
Consider James. He’s one of more than 400,000 children in foster care right now. James came home from the hospital with a loving couple, and for three years he flourished in their home. His birth mother was addicted to opioids. She lost custody of two earlier siblings. James visited with her occasionally. The court was slowly, slowly moving toward terminating her parental rights with James and giving him a stable “home of permanence” with this couple.
But then his mother gave birth to another child, and on the actual day she delivered, she tested clean, and the interminable process began all over again. The judge threw out the earlier termination of parental rights regarding James and awarded his mother custody.
Imagine a three-year-old trying to make sense of having to leave the only family he has ever known. As his foster parent, how would you handle calls from the social worker telling you that James is sitting every night in a homeless shelter crying for his “mother” and “father” to come back and get him? Such is the dilemma of hundreds and hundreds of children whose story is not told.
The hidden reality behind the silent suffering of these children is that while the effects of broken attachments are well known, decisions about children’s futures are governed by the desires of adults — not the needs of children.
Elizabeth Bartholet, director of Harvard’s Child Advocacy Program, has spent more than 30 years chronicling this saga. She claims that public policy is centered on adults and their welfare. “The real goal appears to be to serve the interest of poor adults and to alleviate the suffering associated with poverty, including any harm that parents might suffer from state intervention in cases of child maltreatment,” she writes.
A corrupt public policy research-merger exists. Family preservation programs are chosen on the basis of ideology, supported by research designed not to test the hypothesis but to prove the program’s efficacy to ensure funding. “Kinship care” has become the holy grail of social work. Even Donald Trump has jumped on board.
But too often, the “kinship care” from blood family a given child needs is a family that is unable to care for him. His next-of-kin is not able to step up as a parent in time for him (or her) to form a stable sense of family.
The costs of disrupted bonding and unstable attachments in early childhood are a price a child will likely pay for the rest of his or her life. Adverse changes to the brain, cognitive and physical developmental delays, socio-emotional trauma, anxiety and depression — the trauma of broken attachments is only too well known.
The hell-bent determination to return children to relatives who cannot care for them is kept in place by an odd consortium. Conservatives believe this will save money — though that’s only in the short run. Liberals think that the rights of adults nearly always trump, following much of the same logic surrounding abortion, which nullifies the rights of the child.
The good news is that child advocacy warriors are on the rise, moving state by state. Kentucky and Arizona are the most recent states to pass legislation that requires the state to find adequate next-of-kin by a specified date, with the goal of getting a child in a home-of-permanence within his first year.
As we lament the anguish unfolding in migrant children’s care, we might also remember the host of invisible children, like James, who suffer out of the public eye. Their trauma is not useful to a political cause like immigration, but it is no less devastating.
After five months in his new environment, James has been removed from the care of his mother and placed, once again, in a different foster care situation. James missed his best chance to be adopted into a permanent home. Every year a child remains in foster care his chances of adoption decrease by 25 percent.
This is how children end up locked in a system that deprives them of the chance to grow up in a stable family. Please, would someone capture their pain and put it on the nightly news?