Regis Professor Offers Insight into the Trauma Inflicted on Families Separated at the Border

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a wire cage fence in front of a yellow sky at sun set

In early May of 2018, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the United States would be implementing a zero-tolerance stance on illegal border crossings.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said while speaking at a law-enforcement event. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle a child over the border.”

Immediately following the announcement, children, some still in diapers, were taken from their parents at border crossing points and placed into cages. Adults were handcuffed and moved to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. None of those impacted knew when or if they’d see each other again.

Experts say the deep emotional wounds suffered by those who were subjected to the family separation policy are all too real.

Trauma defined

When someone experiences an event that overwhelms their ability to cope, such as exposure to death, the threat of death, or serious injury, trauma occurs. Personally witnessing or learning about a family member’s experience of such an event can also lead to trauma.

Not surprisingly, medical professionals have been against the family separation policy from the start.

On June 14, 2018, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) wrote an open letter to President Trump expressing its “deep concern and strong opposition to the Administration’s new policy of separating immigrant parents and children who are detained while crossing the border.”

“Decades of psychological research have determined that it is in the best interests of the child and the family to keep families together,” the letter states. The children are already under severe stress from having been uprooted from their homes. “Sudden and unexpected family separation, such as separating families at the border, can add to that stress, leading to emotional trauma in children. Research also suggests that the longer that parents and children are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression are for children.”

The American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) also called for an end to the policy. In a June 19, 2018, press release, the APNA said they felt it was their duty to provide information about the seriousness of the issue.

According to the APNA, “It is very alarming that our government’s policy is producing traumatic effects. Trauma has profound consequences. It causes many persons to develop depression and anxiety. Trauma, if not treated, can ruin lives.”

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, all people have basic physical and safety requirements that need to be met in order to avoid psychological consequences. Separating children from their parents, experts say, causes a significant threat to fulfilling these needs.

In an interview with Erika Napoletano in Chicago Health Magazine, Shari Harding, assistant professor of nursing at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts, and a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, addressed the seriousness of the issue. “In these family separation situations, children simply don’t know how or when their needs will be met,” Harding says.

The effects of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy are likely to be long-lasting.

Long-term, catastrophic consequences

During separation, experts say, a child experiences an enormous amount of stress. Their hearts begin to race, and their bodies release large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. After a period of time, these stress hormones begin to rewire a child’s brain; this has been medically proven to have long-term, catastrophic consequences.

An open letter written by the APA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Physicians, which represents more than 250,000 U.S.-based doctors, underscores the type of damage this can cause.

“From decades of research and direct clinical experience, we know that the impact of disrupted attachment manifests not only in overwhelming fear and panic at the time of the separation, but that there is a strong likelihood that these children’s behavioral, psychological, interpersonal, and cognitive trajectories will also be affected,” the petition reads. “To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.”

Problems with reunification

Although a federal judge ordered that families that were separated at the southwest border be reunited, the process has been chaotic, at best.

Records that linked children to their parents have gone missing, and, in some cases, federal authorities have needed to resort to DNA testing to help them make a match. Reuters reported that as of late July 2018, 432 migrant parents may have been deported from the United States without their kids, which has proven to be a strong impediment to reunification.

In late October, CNN reported there were a number of children still in custody who would not be reunited with their parents either because the Trump administration had deemed the parent to be unfit or because the parents had declined reunification.


Although the Trump administration ultimately relinquished its family separation policy, moving to instead detain parents and children together, law enforcement groups feel the proposal is misguided.

In a June 27 letter to congressional leadership, the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force urged alternative solutions be considered.

“Like other Americans, we’re deeply concerned about family separation,” the letter states. “We do not believe that across-the-board family detention is the solution to family separation. Most families do not pose a threat to the community at large and, accordingly, our juvenile detention system is designed around keeping the family together. Given the risks to children’s physical and emotional development posed by prolonged detention, we urge policy makers to consider alternatives.”

DHS Watch Director Ur Jaddou, who is also a lawyer and law professor with experience in making and implementing immigration policy, was quoted in a June 20, 2018, press release stating she believes there are smart, humane alternatives to “the morally and operationally unsustainable reliance on zero-tolerance.”

“A combination of root cause mitigation, in-country refugee processing, case management strategies that result in compliance and enhanced resources for the adjudication process would move us towards a safe, legal and orderly process and away from the chaos and cruelty of zero tolerance and family separation,” she says.

Unfortunately for migrant children and their families, a long-term solution has yet to be advanced.

Learn More

The online Master of Science in Nursing program at Regis College prepares graduates for advanced and specialized nursing roles in settings such as family practices, pediatric units, adult-geriatric facilities, women’s health centers, and mental health institutions. Learn about how this program can lead to career success today.



Recommended Readings:

What Does a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Do?

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Nursing?

What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?



America’s Voice

American Psychiatric Association

American Psychiatric Nurses Association

The Atlantic

Chicago Health CNN


Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force

The New York Times



The Washington Post