Better World

Toxic Stress: What Harvard Has To Say About Family Separation and Child Detention

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“Forcibly separating children from their parents is like setting a house on fire,” a new issue brief from Harvard states. “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.” It may sound dramatic to some, but the author, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., a child development scientist at Harvard University, is referring to the proven biological effects of toxic stress on children.

Toxic stress disrupts child brain development and can have a lifelong impact on mental and physical health, learning, behavior, future drug and alcohol addiction, and future parenting abilities, so it has a big impact on overall societal health. This toxic stress response can occur when children experience intense or ongoing trauma such as abuse, neglect, or extreme hardship, without the support of a loving adult—as opposed to the “positive” or “tolerable” types of stress that build resilience in children.

The evidence of harm — and what we need to do about it — is overwhelming.

Dr. Shonkoff has no doubt that the practice of migrant family separation causes toxic stress in many children affected by the policy. He states, “Intentionally withholding the most powerful healing intervention we could possibly offer—the care that parents provide when their children are in danger—goes against everything that science, morality, and common sense are telling us.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, over 5,400 children have been separated from their families at the U.S./Mexico border since July 2017. Reuniting families is proving to be extremely difficult due to the government’s inadequate tracking systems.

The issue brief was published by the Immigration Initiative at Harvard in October, and includes take-home messages for policymakers and the general public. The brief drives home the point that for healthy development to occur, children absolutely need “a stable, responsive, and supportive relationship with at least one parent or primary caregiver”—and makes the urgent argument that “the longer children are detained in institutional settings (with or without their parents) the greater the long-term damage is likely to be.”

Dr. Shonkoff already delivered a similar message to Congress in February at a hearing on migrant family separation policy. In his testimony, as in the brief, he emphasized that the scientific evidence for his position was overwhelming, representing the results of thousands of studies over decades of peer-reviewed research. The hope is that policymakers will be able to look beyond partisan politics to the facts, and work to change the conditions that migrant children and families are currently facing.



Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.