Reflections | June 27, 2018

A parent’s terrifying nightmare

Worried girl
Photo by Bess Hamiti

As I watched my daughter being led away by a stranger, I had a moment of fear. We were in a new and unfamiliar country. We didn't know the language. What if she got lost and needed help? What if I got lost trying to find her? I imagined her alone, crying, with no one nearby who spoke her language, and me frantically searching the city for her, endlessly repeating the few words I had managed to remember.

The reality was far less dramatic. We were overseas for a seven-month work assignment. My daughter was on her way to a birthday party, surrounded by other children she knew from school. I had the phone number and address of the family hosting the party, and money for a taxi. It would be fine.

I’ve been thinking of that incident as I watch the news and reflect on the situations of so many parents and children coming to this country. I recognize how fortunate I am that my daughter was attending a party and not being forcibly taken to a detention center. Having recently been a stranger myself, I can imagine how terrifying it is to be in a strange land and completely at the mercy of those who hold all the power, how helpless it must feel to have nothing but an 800 number to link a parent and child, particularly if neither has a phone. I especially contemplate how desperate the past must have been to bring them on such a dangerous journey with nothing promised, only the hope of something better.

I wonder what I would do if my life or the life of my child was threatened. Would I leave my home and community? Joseph and Mary faced that same decision. Would I break a law in order to achieve a greater good? Jesus encountered that dilemma. Would I trust someone who has the power to help me with no guarantee that power would be used for my benefit? Esther found herself in that situation. If instead of my child being returned to me after the party I had been handed a piece of paper with a phone number, how would I have reacted? If I called that number and no one answered, what would I have done?

What would have happened to my child if she had been taken from me? Children need their parents. It doesn’t take a mental health degree to know that, but a multitude of scientific studies confirm it. Children who are forcibly separated from their parents experience trauma. This is true even when the children are well cared for after the separation. Caregivers are not interchangeable components in a child’s life. Kind words, a clean bed, and good food are important, but not sufficient to offset the trauma of losing the very center of the child’s existence. Children do not understand the forces at work. They believe their parents can do anything, and therefore are likely to view their parents as responsible for the separation. Prolonged separation can result in toxic stress and disrupted attachment, leading to long-lasting and serious problems with health, behavior, learning, and relationships. A child’s brain develops differently in a situation of prolonged high stress. It is permanently altered, and reuniting families after they have been torn apart will not necessarily heal the damage that has already been done.

My daughter had a wonderful time at the party, and we were happily reunited when it ended. My heart aches for the parents and children whose separations were forced and whose reunions remain uncertain. Though the official policy of separating families has ended, more than 2,000 children are still living without their parents as a result. They go to bed each night alone, without a good-night kiss. Their parents live in a state of constant distress and helplessness. This is not about politics. It’s about human decency, and it is wrong.

Karen Richardson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in children's mental health issues. She is a member of Oakton Church of the Brethren in Vienna, Va.