Toxic Stress: Issue Brief on Family Separation and Child Detention [immigrationinitiative.harvard.edu]

 

By Jack P. Shonkoff, Immigration Initiative at Harvard, October 2019

Background

The separation of children from their parents and their prolonged
detention for an indefinite period of time raise profound concerns that
transcend partisan politics and demand immediate resolution. Forcibly
separating children from their parents is like setting a house on fire.
Preventing rapid reunification is like blocking the first responders from
doing their job. And subjecting children to prolonged detention (even
with their parents) is like dripping gasoline on smoldering embers that
will keep the fire going.

When children are separated abruptly from their families and detained
in institutional settings, the high likelihood of serious consequences is
not difficult for the average person to comprehend. Pediatricians,
mental health clinicians, child welfare experts, and educators bring a
deeper perspective based on their knowledge of both the immediate
and lifelong effects of childhood trauma. And above and beyond the
distress that anyone can see “on the outside,” scientists understand
that significant adversity triggers a massive biological response
“inside” the child, which remains activated until a sense of safety and
security is restored. This biological response is known as “toxic
stress”1 and the most potent antitoxin is the protection provided by the
reliable availability of a nurturing parent or other familiar caregiver.

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