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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 3:58 pm | Fair 73º


Alana Walczak: Family Separation Is Childhood Trauma

“Are little kids really being put in jail?” That was the question my daughters asked me when I picked them up from summer camp last week. For a minute, I was stunned into silence. I took a deep breath, overwhelmed by sadness that we live in a world where kids — younger than my own girls — are indeed living this reality.

My daughters had talked with friends about what they are hearing on the news. They didn’t understand why anyone would take children away from their mom or dad. They didn’t understand why they were being sent to warehouses all alone. I struggled to find words to explain what is happening, let alone why it is happening. So, I told them a story.

Paloma was only 4 years old when she came to the United States from Central America with her mother. Paloma’s mom made the decision to come to the United States to flee the domestic violence she was experiencing on a daily basis, as well as the horrific gang violence that plagued their local community.

After enduring weeks of grueling travel via trucks and trains, and miles of walking through hot, dusty deserts, Paloma’s mother was detained at the U.S. border. At that time, little Paloma was taken alone to a “shelter.” She remained alone in the detention center for almost two weeks, and did not see her mother again. Paloma eventually was placed with family members in Santa Barbara County, while her mother was deported back to their homeland.

This is the story of a CALM client. But, it also is the story of thousands of children currently being separated from their parents and placed in “shelters” at the U.S. border. Recent news headlines have revealed that more than 10,000 children have been separated from their parents under current immigration policies. Children are being taken to warehouse-like detention centers that separate boys from girls with chain-link fences and makeshift beds on the floors.

This is childhood trauma.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for an end to parent-child separation: “As pediatricians, it is our view that the separation of children from their parents is inhumane and counterproductive.” The American Medical Association also has denounced family separation as causing “unnecessary distress, depression and anxiety.”

On the list of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), three of the 10 noted childhood traumas relate to the separation of child from parent, whether through divorce, death or incarceration. ACEs are childhood traumas that can negatively impact health and well-being throughout the lifespan.

Research shows that children who have experienced four or more ACEs are more than 30 times more likely to have a learning or behavior problem than their more fortunate peers. In addition, childhood trauma is directly correlated to long-term mental and physical health outcomes — things such as depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

It is imperative to understand that the primary way a child manages distress, copes with new experiences and makes sense of the world around them is through their relationship with a primary caregiver. The children being separated have been reported to have frequent nightmares, anxiety and stomachaches. Quite literally, they are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And, they are all alone — with no one to hold them, soothe them or sing to them.

My heart aches for Paloma. In her four short years of life, she experienced unspeakable violence in her community, witnessed the horror of her father violently beating her mother, and made the terribly dangerous and difficult journey to the United States. Upon arrival, she was separated from the only person she knew and trusted. She was placed alone in a scary new place, with people speaking to her in a language she did not understand. She lied alone on a pad on the floor, crying herself to sleep with no one to comfort her.

This is childhood trauma.

As a parent, I continue to struggle with how to answer my girls’ poignant questions. For now, I am just trying to be honest and available to them — to answer their questions, to provide information and to share my feelings about all of it. I acknowledge their fear and anxiety. I validate their sense of confusion and disbelief. And, I realize that in times of stress, we need to maintain connection with those we care about and love.

As humans, we are wired — biologically and emotionally — to connect to each other. For children, the connection to a primary caregiver is paramount for healthy development. Early interactions with a trusted adult literally build “the self” as all learning happens in the context of relationships.

CALM’s tagline is “protecting the most important relationship in the world.” We believe that a healthy attachment between parent and child is the core building block for a healthy life. A strong connection to a caregiver mitigates stress in young children and helps them feel safe enough to explore, to attempt developmental challenges and to learn new things. Family separation robs children of these supports. It creates toxic stress, which damages brain development and leads to chronic and lifelong health conditions.

Forcibly separating children from their parents is unconscionable. It is wrong. It creates long-term consequences for a child, a family and a community.

This is childhood trauma.

— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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