Doctors call US family separation policy child abuse, but administration claims 'children not being used as pawns'

Images of children in cages, distressing stories of their separation from their families, outrage from various quarters and the Donald Trump administration obstinate defence of its latest seemingly inhuman policy is how the weekend progressed in the United States.

 Doctors call US family separation policy child abuse, but administration claims children not being used as pawns

People participate in a protest against the US immigration policy of separating children from their families at the Mexico border. Reuters.

From 19 April to 31 May, nearly 2,000 children were separated from the migrants' families while trying to seek asylum in the US by crossing the border, TIME reported quoting officials. But the situation, as horrifying as it may already seem, could get worse — a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services told The Washington Examiner that 11,500 children were already being held in detention centres, and the number could rise to 30,000 by August.

Separating children from their parents, or the adults accompanying them, is part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which includes federal prosecution of the adults trying to "smuggle" children across the border and either detaining the children at centres run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services or sending them to live with their relatives in the US. It could be said that it is aimed at deterring other migrant families from attempting to cross the border.

"If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said in May while announcing the policy. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

On Monday, US Customs and Border Protection released a video from a Texas facility that showed children in cages with a foil to use as sheets. This added fuel to the fire already lit by Trump and officials from his administration for refusing to acknowledge the absurdity of the family separation policy, instead choosing to — incorrectly — blame the Democrats for their weak stance on immigration laws.

With protests against the measure gaining momentum, people taking to the streets and politicians speaking out against the family separation policy, it was only a matter of time before the subject of child abuse came up in this context.

On Monday, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Colleen Kraft, told CNN that the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border “amounts to child abuse". In an appearance on the news channel, she elaborated on the different ways the policy emotionally harms children and described in detail the horror she witnessed while touring a detention centre in Texas. "I can't describe to you the room I was in with the toddlers," Kraft said. "Normally, toddlers are rambunctious and running around. We had one child just screaming and crying, and the others were really silent. And this is not normal activity or brain development with these children… These children need their parents… This does amount to child abuse."

"This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse," she told CNN.

It would take no child psychologist to fathom that being separated from their parents would have adverse effects on the children. Kraft explained the "toxic stress" it causes the children when they are taken away from their parents. "It disrupts their brain architecture and keeps them from developing language and social, emotional bonds, and gross motor skills, and the development that they could possibly have."

The American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association also compared the policy to child abuse. "The effect of this type of event will follow these children into adulthood and into their entire lives," Ana Maria Lopez, president of the American College of Physicians. "Our federal government is causing a situation that is creating a host of potential health consequences for an entire category of people."

A doctor from North Carolina said the US was "systematising something that we know is incredibly harmful and incredibly cruel". The CEO of the American Psychological Association said that "research shows parental separation is harmful to children" and could lead to anxiety and depression.

Moreover, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that growing fears among immigrants have significant negative effects on children's health. One can only imagine the kind of effects the children at the detention centres, separated from their parents indefinitely, will face in future.

People participate in a protest against the US immigration policy that separates children from their families. Reuters.

People participate in a protest against the US immigration policy that separates children from their families. Reuters.

Echoing Kraft's views, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein condemned the family separation policy as a "cruel practice". "The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable."

This was not the first time the UN denounced the US’ family separation policy. On 5 June, it had declared that the policy violated human rights and international law and urged the US government to end it. "The US should immediately halt this practice of separating families and stop criminalising what should at most be an administrative offence," a spokeswoman for Commissioner Zeid's office had said.

Despite proof from the ground, images of weeping children and distraught parents and widespread opposition, the administration seems determined to turn a blind eye to reality.

Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday denied that separating immigrant children from their parents at the border amounted to child abuse, choosing instead to assert that they had "high standards" at the detention facilities. She went on to defend President Trump, saying he was "trying to find a long-term fix" and maintained — like others from the administration — that the US Congress needed to act to fix loopholes in immigration laws.

From what we have seen from the detention centres so far, the child abuse is evident and the paediatricians and immigration activists are not wrong to call for an end to the separation policy. While the Trump administration continues to put children through hell instead of working with the Democrats to find a middle ground to fix what the president believes are flawed immigration laws, Nielsen fooled no one with her claim that the children were not being used as pawns.

Updated Date: Jun 19, 2018 22:46:13 IST