Migrant children need safety net

ACEs tied to traumas threaten the emotional, physical health of a generation


An 11-year-old was caring for his toddler brother. Both were fending for themselves in a cell with dozens of other children. The little one was quiet with matted hair, a hacking cough, muddy pants, and eyes that fluttered with fatigue.

As the two brothers were reportedly interviewed, one fell asleep on two office chairs drawn together, probably the most comfortable bed he had used in weeks. They had been separated from an 18-year-old uncle and sent to the Clint Border Patrol Station in Texas. When they were interviewed in the news report, they had been there 3 weeks and counting.

Per news reports this summer, preteen migrant children have been asked to care for toddlers not related to them with no assistance from adults, and no beds, no food, and no change of clothing. Children were sleeping on concrete floors and eating the same unpalatable and unhealthy foods for close to a month: instant oatmeal, instant soup, and previously frozen burritos. Babies were roaming around in dirty diapers, fending for themselves, foraging for food. Two- and 3-year-old toddlers were sick with no adult comforting them.

When some people visited the border patrol station, they said they saw children trapped in cages like animals. Some were keening in pain while pining for their parents from whom they had been separated.

These children were forcibly separated from parents. In addition, they face living conditions that include hunger, dehydration, and lack of hygiene, to name a few. This sounds like some fantastical nightmare from a war-torn third-world country – but no these circumstances are real, and they are here in the USA.

We witness helplessly the helplessness created by a man-made disaster striking the world’s most vulnerable creature: the human child. This specter afflicting thousands of migrant children either seeking asylum or an immigrant status has far-reaching implications. This is even more ironic, given that, as a nation, we have embraced the concept of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on lifelong health challenges. Most of us reel with horror as these tales make their way to national headlines. But are we as a nation complicit in watching like bystanders while a generation of children is placed at risk from experiencing the long-term effects of ACEs on their physical and emotional health?

Surely if the psychological implications of ACEs do not warrant a change in course, the mere economics of the costs arising from the suffering caused by totally preventable medical problems in adulthood should be considered in policy decisions. However, that is beyond the scope of this commentary.

The human child is so utterly dependent on parents. He does not have the fairly quick physical independence from parents that we see in the animal kingdom. As soon as a child is born, a curious process of attachment begins within the mom and baby dyad, and eventually, this bond engulfs the father as well. The baby depends on the parent to understand his needs: be it when to eat, when he wants to be touched, when he needs to be left alone, when he needs to be cleaned or fed. Optimum crying serves so many purposes, and most parents are exquisitely attuned to the baby’s cry. From this relationship emerges a stable worldview, and, among many things, a stable neuroendocrine system.

Unique cultural backgrounds of individuals create the scaffolding for human variability, which in turn, confers a richness to the human race. However, development proceeds in a fairly uniform and universal fashion for children, regardless of where they come from. The progression of brain and body development moves lockstep with each other responding to a complex interplay between genetics, environment, and neurohormonal factors. It is remarkable just how resilient the human baby is in the face of the challenges that it often faces: accidental injury, illness, and even benign neglect.

However, there comes a breaking point similar to that described in the stories above, where the stress is toxic and intolerable. It is continuous, and it is relentless in its capacity to bathe the developing brain and body of the child with noxious endogenous substances that cause cell death and subsequent atrophy that is potentially irreversible.

We see such children in our clinics downstream: at ages 8, 13, or 16, after they have lost their ability to modulate emotions and are highly aggressive, or are withdrawn and depressed – or in the juvenile justice system after having repeatedly but impulsively violated the law. In other words, repeated trauma changes the wiring of the brain and neuromodulatory capacity. There is literature suggesting that traumatized children carry within them modified genes that affect their capacity to be nurturing parents. In other words, trauma has the potential to lead to multigenerational transmission of the experiences of suffering and often a psychological incapacity to parent – putting subsequent generations at risk.

So what should we do? Be bystanders, or become involved professionals?

The need to create a supportive safety net for these children is essential. Ideally, they should be reunited with their parents. The reunification of children with their parents is an absolute must if it can be done. Their parents are alive somewhere – and the best mitigators of the emotional damage already done. A strong case needs to be made for reunification, otherwise parental separation, deprivation on multiple levels, such as what these children are experiencing, will create a generation of compromised children.

A second-best option is that an emotional and physical safety net should be created that mimics a family for each child. Children need predictability and stability of caregivers with whom they can form an affective bond. This is essential for them to negotiate the cycle of inconsolable weeping, searching for their parent/s, reconciling the loss, and either reaching a level of adaptation or being engulfed in the despair that these toddlers, children, and teens continually face. In addition, these individuals/teams first and foremost should plan on giving equal consideration to the physical and emotional needs of the children.

Trained mental health professionals, particularly those who understand child development, should be central players in the planning process. The damage is done in the form of subjecting children to all that is detrimental to development. Now, steady, regular presence of shift workers who understand the importance of the continuity of relationships and who cannot only advocate for but also provide for the nutritional, sleep, and hygiene needs of the child concurrently is necessary. The children need soft and nurturing touch, predictability of routines, adequate sleep, adequate wholesome nutrition, and familiarity of faces who should make a commitment of spending no less than 6 to 9 months at a stretch in these camps.

Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and senior professor of child mental health policy at the Virginia Treatment Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Dr. Aradhana Bela Sood

Although the task appears herculean, drastic problems need drastic remedies, as the entire life of every child is at stake. These workers should be trained in mental health and physical health first aid, so they can recognize the gradations of despair, detachment, and acting out in children and know how to triage the children to appropriate trained mental health and medical clinicians. It is to be expected that both medical and mental health problems will be concentrated in this population, and planning for staffing such camps should anticipate that. This safety net should be created in all facilities accepting these children.

Dr. Sood is professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and senior professor of child mental health policy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

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