Medical experts weigh in on ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy separating children from parents at the border

Senator Edward Markey spent the morning of June 24 consulting health experts in East Boston about the impacts on children being separated from their families and caretakers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Markey has joined a growing chorus of legislators, civil rights groups and religious leaders who are in strong opposition of Donald Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy.

The policy has been a rallying cry for many to protest the administration’s stance on illegal immigration.

Markey told reporters that he is determined to apply more political pressure to the issue as it relates to the health of the children impacted.

“This is the best medical community in the world,” Markey said outside of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. “You’ve just heard their conclusions as to what is the impact on these children and we’re going to make this case until there is an overwhelming cascade of opposition to this policy.”

Markey was referring to the expertise of child and adolescent psychologist Lisa Fortuna and her team at  the Boston Medical Center. She took to the podium to lay out what family separation means and what it does to those impacted.

“In my work with these communities it is very clear to me that these families who come seeking asylum and refuge have already experienced significant trauma and violence exposure, including gang violence that has been imposed upon them,” Fortuna said. “You have this acute stress reaction where a child has elevated cortisone stress hormones, and what we know from science is that those elevations – and especially prolonged in a detention situation – results in actual damage to those neurons in the brain that regulate emotions and allow the child to be able to soothe and attach.”

Fortuna went on to say traumatic experiences, like separation, can cause “irreparable or very-difficult-to-heal damage,” which could lead to anxiety, depression, dysregulated fear responses and difficulty developing.

She said the adults separated from their children also tend to experience depression and anxiety in addition to post traumatic stress disorder.

Hank Dorkin, former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the zero tolerance policy goes against everything he has learned about successful child nurturing in his 45 years as a pediatrician.

“Even as we move to reverse this situation, many of these children will continue to have terrifying nightmares for years to come,” Dorkin said. “Some will be scarred for life; all in all, this was far from an American president’s finest hour. We must act now to begin the healing process.”

Though the president has announced that he signed an executive order ending the practice of separating families at the border, Markey told reporters that the zero tolerance policy is essentially still in effect. He said the children impacted could potentially face a lifetime of adverse outcomes if they stay separated from their caregivers.

“There is no amount of health care they are going to allow [in detention] that deals with the fundamental problem, which our health care experts are saying is being created,” Markey said, “Only keeping them as a unit really deals with the fundamental medical problem, which is being created artificially out of the Trump Administration.”

Fortuna said reuniting the kids with their parents and caretakers must be the first step taken.

“The road to healing and recovery is not easy,” Fortuna said. “From a medical perspective we have to deal with this situation immediately, right now, because every moment that we waste is ongoing harm, long-term harm, to children across the age span, into their families and parents, and this is a very big issue.”

Markey said more than 2,300 children have been separated from the families as the Department of Health and Human Services agency is working to reunite them.







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