The experience of being lost as a child, even for a few minutes, can resonate for a lifetime. As an expert on the long-reaching effects of trauma, Philadelphia-based psychologist Dana L. Sinopoli, Psy.D, was appalled to learn that the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the southern border has led to hundreds of children being taken from their parents. While immigrants await prosecution, their children are placed in detention centers – often without a Spanish-speaking adult or advocate.
At the beginning of the month, Sinopoli authored an open letter urging members of the mental health profession to protest this policy of separation. The response has been immediate and tremendous, with nearly 4,600 professionals, 1,960 members of the general public, and 90 organizations adding their signatures to the petition as of last week.
Her letter stated, "We cannot afford to forget that there is a history of separating children from their parents: during slave auctions, during the forced assimilation of American Indians, and during the Holocaust. The reverberations of these barbaric stains on our history are still felt today, and future generations of these original victims will inherit the intergenerational transmission of these traumas."
While estimates vary, it's believed that dozens of families are being split up every day. Last month, Customs and Border Protection reported that 658 children were taken during a 14-day period in May. The Dallas News put the total count at 2,400 and growing.
"There was no recognition of the child's experience during any of this," Sinopoli said.
She explained that disrupted attachment – which can occur when children are abruptly separated from a parent – has been linked to post traumatic stress responses, anxiety and depressive disorders, and physical illness. People with a history of disrupted attachment may lose their sense of security in the world and struggle to maintain healthy relationships. They may experience problems with their intellectual and attentional functioning. They may even be more likely to become the victim or perpetrator of a crime.
"What we understand about trauma is that it is encoded in the brain in a different way than non-traumatic memories and experiences," Sinopoli explained. "What I really want to stress is that the damage is done. Regardless of whether there is reunification – and certainly, we hope there will be – that does not undo the traumatic experience of being separated."
Sinopoli hopes the petition will lead to greater clarity on the issue of splitting up families at the border, which has been confused with another issue: child immigrants entering the U.S. unaccompanied, 1,475 of whom HHS lost track of last year. "There was understandably an uproar about that," she said, "but this was being conflated with the children who were forcibly separated from their parents."
Most critically, she hopes to draw more attention to the mental health side of what the Trump administration has treated as a policy issue. "That's what's been missing in everything I've been reading and watching," she said. "Our profession needs to speak to the fact that this is beyond the issue of immigration. How we treat, care for, and regard children has to be the one thing that, regardless of political identification, we can all agree on."
Mental health professionals and concerned citizens can still sign the petition, which is hosted by Child's World America. Each time a signature is added, a copy of the petition will be emailed to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Copies have been sent to the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the relevant House and Senate committees. Sinopoli and Child's World America hope to reach their goal of 10,000 signatures. They will then send the letter and signatures to the White House, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Secretary Nielsen, as well as to House and Senate Leadership. "We want to make it very clear how many [mental health professionals] agree with the sentiment," Sinopoli said. "There are very strong efforts in the works to use this as a way to affect policy change."
Shannon Fandler is a staff writer for Villanova-based Child's World America. Child's World America is a member-based, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization committed to improving children's lives in the U.S. They seek to help create and support a community that speaks with a united voice on behalf of children aged 0-18, educating society, and advocating for child-centered public policies.