Research from the US on Family Separation


The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Long-term Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences for Children, Families, and Communities

The Society for Research in Child Development is a US organisation representing and supporting research in child development. It releases publications, policy briefings and press releases on the issue of child development and developmental science, advocating the use of this science for the public good. In June 2018 it issued a statement in response to activities by the Department of Homeland Security. During April and May 2018, Immigration and Custom Enforcement separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents as they approached the U.S. border.

According to the statement, the policy of separating children from their parents has ‘raised significant concerns among researchers, child welfare advocates, policy makers, and the public, given the overwhelming scientific evidence that separation between children and parents, except in cases where there is evidence of maltreatment, is harmful to the development of children, families, and communities.’ The statement goes on to set out some of the science behind separation, enumerating its many harmful and long-standing effects on a child’s development and later adult life as supported by studies that have been conducted recently, and during the twentieth century.

The ten authors emphasise:

  • the evidence that family separation is harmful dates back to studies on the effects of such separations on children’s well-being during World War II. Separation has far reaching effects into adulthood, including increased risk for mental health problems, poor social functioning, insecure attachment, disrupted stress reactivity, and mortality (Pesonen & Räikkönen, 2012; Rusby & Tasker, 2009; Mitrani, Santisteban, & Muir, 2004);

  • harmful effects have been observed in other child populations including in Romanian orphanages (Zeanah, Nelson, Fox, et al., 2003), children in foster care (Flannery, Beauchamp, & Fisher, 2017), and children of incarcerated parents (Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper & Mincy, 2009; Miller, 2006);

  • more recent work has documented the increased mental health risk faced by parents and children when they are separated in the immigration process (Suarez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim., 2011; Rusch & Reyes, 2013). Separation has long-term effects on child well-being even if there is subsequent unification;

  • parental separation is considered a toxic stressor, an experience that engages strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress-management system (Bridgman, 2014). The physiological and psychological toll of early life stress changes how the body responds to stress in the long term, disrupting higher-order cognitive and affective processes as well as negatively altering brain structures and functioning (Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009; Pechtel & Pizzagalli, 2011; Kumar et al., 2014);

  • child-separation from parents impacts children at all ages;

  • there is evidence that family separations harm U.S. children whose family members experience border detention or deportation. Parental separation increases the risk for these U.S. children’s mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, behaviour problems, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Allen, Cisneros, & Tellez, 2015; Rojas-Flores, Clements, Hwang Koo, & London, 2017; Zayas, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Yoon, & Rey, 2015); and

  • countries with supportive immigration policies are more likely to have child populations with better overall health and mental health indicators than those with less supportive approaches (Marks, McKenna, & Garcia Coll, 2018).

In April and May 2018, at the border, children and parents were placed in separate facilities as they were being processed and were not told when or how they would be reunited. The statement by the Society for Research in Child Development provides clear evidence that policies that separate immigrant families upon entry to the U.S. have devastating and long-term developmental consequences for children and their families.

In the Australian context, we can apply these findings to historic policies on forced separation, and policies which remove children from their families without appropriate consultation, care, information provision, time, and oversight.

Read the original statement here.

The web page of the Society for Research in Child Development is available here.

Photo by Francisco Galarza on Unsplash.