Policy Resource

Three Priorities for Babies at the Border

Aug 1, 2018

The Administration’s recent extreme changes to immigration policy and practice have focused attention on the life-altering experiences of families with children crossing the border. As debate continues about how these families should be treated, ZERO TO THREE brings decades of research and expertise in child development to focus on the impacts of proposed and realized immigration practices on the youngest children.

There is a common misperception that babies are too young to be affected by the events around them. In truth, at the very foundation of babies’ development, intense trauma almost inevitably creates physiological damage to their brains and emotional damage that they will carry into the future – particularly if their needs are not met appropriately and immediately. Out of deep concern for young children, families, and the future of our country, ZERO TO THREE stands in strong, informed opposition to any practice that causes trauma and long-term harm to children. As we apply our research-based lens to the current policy options being considered, we have three priorities:

Families who have been separated must be reunified immediately, and the practice of separating children from their parents must not be revisited.

While the rapid and foundational development of infants and toddlers makes them particularly vulnerable to trauma, families offer an essential buffer to those experiences. When children are separated from their parents after crossing the border, that primary bond is severed. This causes stress hormones to flood babies’ brains, disrupting their neurological circuitry in ways that profoundly affect their short- and long-term physical and emotional health, and their ability to form relationships and learn. The broad consensus of researchers and practitioners is that to continue to separate families in this way is akin to child abuse. Additionally, children who have already been separated must be immediately reunited with their caregivers, providing them with the close relationship they need to cope with the trauma they have undergone.

Family detention is not an acceptable alternative for babies, toddlers and their families.

No amount of time in detention has been proven safe for young children. Sending infants and toddlers, even with their parents, to institutional detention is profoundly inadequate to nurture the health and well-being of a young child. Years of research in child development clearly show that babies’ physical and social environments have a significant impact on their development. Family detention places children in an environment of confinement, deprivation of stimuli, and developmentally inappropriate and often harsh treatment, which cause severe stress for both the children and their caregivers. Evaluations of children who have been detained with their families reveal alarming outcomes for young children, with many displaying developmental delays and signs of emotional disturbance. If the legal protections established for children’s care in such facilities (including time limits and regulations) are challenged and reversed, infants, toddlers and their families placed in detention facilities are entirely vulnerable to protracted, unlimited stays, abuse, and neglect. Further compounding the risks to their well-being, families in detention may face inadequate access to services including the medical and mental health care they so desperately need.

Young children who are or have been separated from their families need access to voluntary infant and early childhood mental health services and support.

Decades of psychological and brain research have demonstrated that adverse experiences during this critical period of early childhood, including forced parental separation and placement in incarceration-like settings, can have profound immediate and long-term harm on child development. In the short-term, children may experience anxiety, depression, and self-regulatory issues, including sleeplessness or eating issues. Over time, they may show regression in behavior and cognition, and demonstrate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This type of trauma, particularly when not addressed by an experienced and trusted clinician, has severe implications for both physical and emotional health over time, increasing young childrens’ risk for learning difficulties, problems forming relationships, and adult health issues. Caregivers, who are also deeply psychologically and physiologically impacted by their recent experiences, also need support to provide their children with the care they need. Reunification itself may be difficult, as separated young children don’t have the capacity to understand what has transpired and may feel abandoned by their parents. This is complex work, requiring a focus on both parent and child, and requiring specialized expertise and developmentally appropriate, evidence-based support. Infant and early childhood mental health professionals across the United States are able to help, but they need pathways to families. Individuals interested in connecting families with IECMH professionals can utilize this directory to find a contact in their state.

As experts in early childhood development, we know that every day matters for the well-being of babies and toddlers who have experienced trauma at the border and elsewhere. Appropriate care and treatment is urgently needed, and time is truly of the essence for the protection of their rapidly developing brains. As we consider babies at the border, we must use what decades of science and research tell us to inform policy decisions right now. Their future – and the best interests of our nation – depend on it.