The former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that's now a facility for immigrant children detained after entering the U.S. illegally has become a flashpoint for the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy, under which all people entering the country illegally are prosecuted and, as a result, their children taken from them and put in the care of the government.
Most of the children living inside the converted Walmart tried to enter the U.S. without guardians, but the numbers are now swelling with minors who were ripped from their parents at the border because of the Trump administration's policy.
Inside the Walmart, according to MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff, who visited the facility, children as young as ten receive only two hours of outside time and share a crowded living space. The few windows are covered in black mesh, according to The New York Times. Soboroff likened it to a jail, and the government said on Thursday that it will ease the overcrowding by moving the children to tent cities along the border. The story of how we're treating these children has sparked a larger conversation about the moral compass of our country and what should be done about it.
On Thursday, Esquire spoke with Ragan Schriver, PsyD, MSW, who is director of the Social Work program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to better understand what happens to children when they're separated from their families. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Removing a child from his or her parents should happen in extreme cases only.
There are laws based on a lot of data that suggests removal of a child from their biological parents should be the last step. It used to be a second or first step, when there’s an abuse or difficult situation at home.
Now, they try to send services into the home because of the damage it can cause to a child psychologically. So only if it’s an extreme case, where in-home services wouldn’t work, would Child Protective Services remove a child from a home.
If we look at it from a historical perspective, there used to be more orphanages or more group homes. We were warehousing kids in these facilities, but we moved to a focus on foster parents and stability so that a child can create this bond.
The effect is not only emotional, but also physical.
There’s all this research that’s been developed more recently that talks about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). It indicates the traumatic effect physiologically—not just to your psyche or emotions, but physiologically traumatic—of removing a child from their parents.
ACEs include if a parent is incarcerated or the death of a parent; it’s a traumatic experience that leads to maladaptive behaviors in dealing with emotions in the later part of their life. A traumatic incident like this in your childhood leads to public health issues later in life. You have people who have higher levels of anxiety and depression.[asset removed due to syndication rights]
This is a big deal for adolescents, whose brains are still developing.
We don’t believe the brain is fully developed until you’re 25. If you think about what’s going on from the ages of 10 to 17, specifically about identity, stability is so important during those years. It’s really a big deal—it’s a big deal, physiologically. Having a secure attachment to a parent is a big deal.
Housing children in a windowless building is deprivation.
That’s another thing physiologically: sensory deprivation. Children more than anybody need a variety of senses and textures to experience. They need a variety of things to look at: sunshine, daylight, moonlight. It helps develop a healthier child. It’s deprivation to me.
The government should heed its own research.
The government is pouring money into research on how to care for children in the best way possible, so that the healthcare system isn’t overburdened in the future by people who were traumatized as children dealing with it as adults. It’s a huge cost to the medical system, but you turn around and put those same impacts from those studies on children—on human beings. It’s speaking out of both sides of their mouth.
The government needs to look at its own research and let one arm speak to the other arm. We spend taxpayer dollars to study how we should take care of children, and then we do this kind of thing to them.
It's a human rights issue.
We talk about human rights and all that kind of stuff as a country. We’re humans, so how do we treat each other more humanely? A segment of people may not want immigrants here, but you know—what role should we play? What does it say on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor”?