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← The psychological impact of child separation at the US-Mexico border

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Showing Revision 6 created 10/17/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. For over 40 years, I've been
    a clinical social worker
  2. and a developmental psychologist.
  3. And it seemed almost natural
    for me to go into the helping professions.
  4. My parents had taught me
    to do good for others.
  5. And so I devoted my career
  6. to working with families
    in some of the toughest circumstances:
  7. poverty, mental illness,
  8. immigration, refugees.
  9. And for all those years,
    I've worked with hope and with optimism.
  10. In the past five years, though,

  11. my hope and my optimism
    have been put to the test.
  12. I've been so deeply disappointed
    in the way the United States government
  13. is treating families who are coming
    to our southern border,
  14. asking for asylum --
  15. desperate parents with children,
    from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,
  16. who only want to bring their kids
    to safety and security.
  17. They are fleeing some of
    the worst violence in the world.
  18. They've been attacked by gangs,
  19. assaulted, raped, extorted, threatened.
  20. They have faced death.
  21. And they can't turn to their police
    because the police are complicit,
  22. corrupt, ineffective.
  23. Then they get to our border,
  24. and we put them in detention centers,
  25. prisons, as if they were common criminals.
  26. Back in 2014, I met some of
    the first children in detention centers.

  27. And I wept.
  28. I sat in my car afterwards and I cried.
  29. I was seeing some of the worst
    suffering I'd ever known,
  30. and it went against everything
    I believed in my country,
  31. the rule of law
  32. and everything my parents taught me.
  33. The way the United States
    has handled the immigrants

  34. seeking asylum in our country
  35. over the past five years --
  36. it's wrong, just simply wrong.
  37. Tonight, I want to tell you
    that children in immigration detention
  38. are being traumatized.
  39. And we are causing the trauma.
  40. We in America --
  41. actually, those of us here tonight --
  42. will not necessarily be on the same page
    with respect to immigration.
  43. We'll disagree on how we're going
    to handle all those people
  44. who want to come to our country.
  45. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me
    whether you're a Republican or a Democrat,
  46. liberal or conservative.
  47. I want secure borders.
  48. I also want to keep the bad actors out.
  49. I want national security.
  50. And of course, you'll have your ideas
    about those topics, too.
  51. But I think we can agree
  52. that America should not be doing harm.
  53. The government, the state, should not
    be in the business of hurting children.
  54. It should be protecting them,
  55. no matter whose children they are:
  56. your children, my grandchildren
  57. and the children of families
    just looking for asylum.
  58. Now, I could tell you story after story

  59. of children who have witnessed
    some of the worst violence in the world
  60. and are now sitting in detention.
  61. But two little boys have stayed with me
    over these past five years.
  62. One of them was Danny.
  63. Danny was seven and a half years old
    when I met him in a detention center
  64. in Karnes City, Texas, back in 2014.
  65. He was there with his mother
    and his brother,
  66. and they had fled Honduras.
  67. You know, Danny is one of these kids
    that you get to love instantly.
  68. He's funny, he's innocent,
  69. he's charming and very expressive.
  70. And he's drawing pictures for me,
  71. and one of the pictures he drew for me
    was of the Revos Locos.
  72. The Revos Locos: this is the name
  73. that they gave to gangs
    in the town that he was in.
  74. I said to Danny,
  75. "Danny, what makes them bad guys?"
  76. Danny looked at me with puzzlement.
  77. I mean, the look was more like,
  78. "Are you clueless or just stupid?"
  79. (Laughter)

  80. He leaned in and he whispered,

  81. "Don't you see?
  82. They smoke cigarettes."
  83. (Laughter)

  84. "And they drink beer."

  85. Danny had learned, of course,
    about the evils of drinking and smoking.
  86. Then he said, "And they carry guns."
  87. In one of the pictures,
  88. the stick figures of the Revos Locos
    are shooting at birds and at people.
  89. Danny told me about the day his uncle
    was killed by those Revos Locos
  90. and how he ran from his house
    to his uncle's farmhouse,
  91. only to see his uncle's dead body,
  92. his face disfigured by bullets.
  93. And Danny told me he saw his uncle's teeth
    coming out the back of his head.
  94. He was only six at the time.
  95. Sometime after that,
  96. one of those Revos Locos
    beat little Danny badly, severely,
  97. and that's when his parents said,
  98. "We have got to leave
    or they will kill us."
  99. So they set out.

  100. But Danny's father was
    a single-leg amputee with a crutch,
  101. and he couldn't manage the rugged terrain.
  102. So he said to his wife,
  103. "Go without me. Take our boys.
  104. Save our boys."
  105. So Mom and the boys set off.
  106. Danny told me he looked back,
    said goodbye to his father,
  107. looked back a couple of times
    until he lost sight of his father.
  108. In detention, he had not
    heard from his father.
  109. And it's very likely that his father
    was killed by the Revos Locos,
  110. because he had tried to flee.
  111. I can't forget Danny.
  112. The other boy was Fernando.

  113. Now, Fernando was
    in the same detention center,
  114. roughly the same age as Danny.
  115. Fernando was telling me about the 24 hours
    he spent in isolation with his mother
  116. in the detention center,
  117. placed there because his mother
    had led a hunger strike
  118. among the mothers in the detention center,
  119. and now she was cracking
    under the pressure of the guards,
  120. who were threatening and being
    very abusive towards her and Fernando.
  121. As Fernando and I are talking
    in the small office,
  122. his mother burst in,
  123. and she says, "They hear you!
    They're listening to you."
  124. And she dropped to her hands and knees,
  125. and she began to look under the table,
    groping under all the chairs.
  126. She looked at the electric sockets,
  127. at the corner of the room,
  128. the floor, the corner of the ceiling,
  129. at the lamp, at the air vent, looking
    for hidden microphones and cameras.
  130. I watched Fernando
    as he watched his mother spiral
  131. into this paranoid state.
  132. I looked in his eyes
    and I saw utter terror.
  133. After all, who would take care
    of him if she couldn't?
  134. It was just the two of them.
    They only had each other.
  135. I could tell you story after story,
  136. but I haven't forgotten Fernando.
  137. And I know something about
    what that kind of trauma,
  138. stress and adversity does to children.
  139. So I'm going to get clinical
    with you for a moment,
  140. and I'm going to be
    the professor that I am.
  141. Under prolonged and intense stress,

  142. trauma, hardship, adversity,
    harsh conditions,
  143. the developing brain is harmed,
  144. plain and simple.
  145. Its wiring and its architecture
  146. are damaged.
  147. The child's natural stress
    response system is affected.
  148. It's weakened of its protective factors.
  149. Regions of the brain
    that are associated with cognition,
  150. intellectual abilities,
  151. judgment, trust, self-regulation,
    social interaction,
  152. are weakened, sometimes permanently.
  153. That impairs children's future.
  154. We also know that under stress,
    the child's immune system is suppressed,
  155. making them susceptible to infections.
  156. Chronic illnesses, like diabetes,
    asthma, cardiovascular disease,
  157. will follow those children into adulthood
    and likely shorten their lives.
  158. Mental health problems are linked
    to the breakdown of the body.

  159. I have seen children in detention
  160. who have recurrent
    and disturbing nightmares,
  161. night terrors,
  162. depression and anxiety,
  163. dissociative reactions,
  164. hopelessness, suicidal thinking
  165. and post-traumatic stress disorders.
  166. And they regress in their behavior,
  167. like the 11-year-old boy
  168. who began to wet his bed again
    after years of continence.
  169. And the eight-year-old girl
    who was buckling under the pressure
  170. and was insisting
    that her mother breastfeed her.
  171. That is what detention does to children.
  172. Now, you may ask:

  173. What do we do?
  174. What should our government do?
  175. Well, I'm just a mental
    health professional,
  176. so all I really know is about
    children's health and development.
  177. But I have some ideas.
  178. First, we need to reframe our practices.

  179. We need to replace fear and hostility
  180. with safety and compassion.
  181. We need to tear down the prison walls,
  182. the barbed wire, take away the cages.
  183. Instead of prison, or prisons,
  184. we should create orderly
    asylum processing centers,
  185. campus-like communities
  186. where children and families
    can live together.
  187. We could take old motels,
    old army barracks,
  188. refit them so that children and parents
    can live as family units
  189. in some safety and normality,
  190. where kids can run around.
  191. In these processing centers,
  192. pediatricians, family doctors,
  193. dentists and nurses,
  194. would be screening, examining,
  195. treating and immunizing children,
  196. creating records that will follow them
    to their next medical provider.
  197. Social workers would be conducting
    mental health evaluations
  198. and providing treatment
    for those who need it.
  199. Those social workers
    would be connecting families
  200. to services that they're going
    to need, wherever they're headed.
  201. And teachers would be teaching
    and testing children
  202. and documenting their learning
  203. so that the teachers at the next school
  204. can continue those children's education.
  205. There's a lot more that we could do
    in these processing centers.
  206. A lot more.
  207. And you probably are thinking,

  208. this is pie-in-the-sky stuff.
  209. Can't blame you.
  210. Well, let me tell you that refugee camps
    all over the world are holding families
  211. like those in our detention centers,
  212. and some of those refugee camps
    are getting it right
  213. far better than we are.
  214. The United Nations has issued reports
    describing refugee camps
  215. that protect children's
    health and development.
  216. Children and parents live in family units
  217. and clusters of families
    are housed together.
  218. Parents are given work permits
    so they can earn some money,
  219. they're given food vouchers so they can
    go to the local stores and shop.
  220. Mothers are brought together
    to cook healthy meals for the children,
  221. and children go to school
    every day and are taught.
  222. Afterwards, after school,
    they go home and they ride bikes,
  223. hang out with friends, do homework
    and explore the world --
  224. all the essentials for child development.
  225. We can get it right.
    We have the resources to get it right.
  226. What we need is the will
    and the insistence of Americans
  227. that we treat children humanely.
  228. You know, I can't forget
    Danny or Fernando.

  229. I wonder where they are today,
  230. and I pray that they
    are healthy and happy.
  231. They are only two
    of the many children I met
  232. and of the thousands we know about
    who have been in detention.
  233. I may be saddened
  234. by what's happened to the children,
  235. but I'm inspired by them.
  236. I may cry, as I did,
  237. but I admire those children's strength.
  238. They keep alive my hope
    and my optimism in the work I do.
  239. So while we may differ
    on our approach to immigration,

  240. we should be treating children
    with dignity and respect.
  241. We should do right by them.
  242. If we do,
  243. we can prepare those children
    who remain in the United States,
  244. prepare them to become productive,
    engaged members of our society.
  245. And those who will return to their
    countries whether voluntarily or not
  246. will be prepared to become the teachers,
    the merchants, the leaders
  247. in their country.
  248. And I hope together
    all of those children and parents
  249. could give testimony to the world
    about the goodness of our country
  250. and our values.
  251. But we have to get it right.
  252. So we can agree
    to disagree on immigration,

  253. but I hope we can agree on one thing:
  254. that none of us wants to look back
    at this moment in our history,
  255. when we knew we were inflicting
    lifelong trauma on children,
  256. and that we sat back and did nothing.
  257. That would be the greatest tragedy of all.
  258. Thank you.

  259. (Applause)