Nadine Burke Harris is the surgeon general of California.
Children in dirty clothes who haven’t been bathed in days. Eight-year-olds caring for toddlers out of necessity. Kids deprived of the safe, stable and nurturing care that’s fundamental to their health and well-being.
As a pediatrician who has spent my career working to address childhood trauma, I’ve unfortunately seen it all. And I’ve had to make my share of reports to Child Protective Services. But whom do we call to report the mistreatment of children by the federal government?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen report after report about the alarming conditions that children are experiencing in our federal detention centers. These conditions aren’t just heartbreaking; they’re dangerous to a child’s health. And I’m not talking about germs.
You don’t have to be a doctor to recognize that the forcible separation of a child from her parent is deeply traumatic. But what the science tells us is that when kids experience trauma, without the buffering support of a nurturing caregiver, it can change their developing brains and bodies and cause serious consequences.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaiser Permanente and other expert institutions has shown that severely traumatic events, or adverse childhood experiences, such as being forcibly separated from a parent or caregiver, substantially increase the risk for negative physical and psychological outcomes, both in the short term and later in life.
Here’s why: When any one of us experiences something traumatic, our brains and bodies activate our fight-or-flight response that leads to the production of high levels of stress hormones. They stimulate our hearts to beat stronger and faster, raise blood pressure and blood sugar, activate our immune system, and alter brain functioning.