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Another Voice: Forced childhood separations lead to lifelong consequences

By Nadine Burke Harris

Children in dirty clothes who haven’t been bathed in days. Eight-year-olds caring for toddlers out of necessity. Kids deprived of the safe, stable and nurturing care that’s fundamental to their health and well-being.

As a pediatrician who has spent my career addressing childhood trauma, I’ve unfortunately seen it all. And I’ve had to make my share of reports to Child Protective Services. But whom do we call to report the mistreatment of children by the federal government?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen report after report about the alarming conditions that children are experiencing in our federal detention centers. These conditions aren’t just heartbreaking; they’re dangerous to a child’s health.

The forcible separation of a child from her parent is deeply traumatic. Science tells us that when kids experience trauma, without the support of a caregiver, it can change their developing brains and bodies and cause serious consequences.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kaiser Permanente and other expert institutions has shown that severely traumatic events, or adverse childhood experiences, such as being forcibly separated from a parent or caregiver, substantially increase the risk for negative physical and psychological outcomes, both in the short term and later in life.

Here’s why: When anyone experiences something traumatic, our brains and bodies activate our fight-or-flight response that leads to the production of high levels of stress hormones. They stimulate our hearts to beat stronger and faster, raise blood pressure and blood sugar, activate our immune system and alter brain functioning.

That’s great if you’re in the forest facing a wild animal and you’re built to run, but science shows that too many stress hormones can lead to serious damage. Children require the nurturing care of a trusted adult to shut off the stress response. Without this, kids are at high risk of long-term changes in brain structure and function, weakening of the immune system, and impairment of hormonal levels.

These changes are what is now recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as toxic stress response. Toxic stress increases the chances that individuals will develop asthma and infections in childhood and develop cardiovascular disease, diabetes, substance dependence and depression in adulthood.

The physical toll placed on these young, growing bodies and brains comes at a tremendous cost to the individuals, their families and communities, and ultimately, to our national conscience. Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, there’s one price no child should have to pay: a shortened life.

Nadine Burke Harris is the surgeon general of California.

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