How Detention Causes Long-term Harm to Children
How Detention Causes Long-term Harm to ChildrenBy Laura Santhanam
Detaining children indefinitely, particularly in a place where their basic needs are not met, can cause long-term damage, according to decades of research on early child development.
The Trump administration plans to detain immigrant children who enter the U.S. illegally with their families with no deadline for release, ending a long-standing settlement that capped the detention of immigrant children at 20 days. The government says holding children in the facilities is for their own safety and well-being. But child advocates and pediatric health experts are outraged and say these children and their needs are being neglected and whole families left traumatized.
One of those experts is Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Harvard Medical School, who has studied the effects of child neglect around the world. Much of his research took place in Romania in the 2000s and has zeroed in on how institution-based care left long-lasting marks on children’s developing brains.
"For young children who do not have a sense of time, staying in detention facilities feels like it will last forever. Time stands still as they wait, Nelson said, leading “to more despair and hopelessness.”
While the administration’s most recent move is focused on detaining family units, the Trump administration also separated thousands of children from their caregivers at the border. And evidence suggests it is still happening. When a child loses the protective buffer of a trusted adult, the trauma can rewire their brain’s architecture and leave that child with lasting emotional, mental and physical damage, according to experts.
The relationship between detention and increased mental health problems among children and families has been well-documented, according to Jaime Diaz-Granado, deputy chief executive for the American Psychological Association. His group has called the Trump administration’s rule change “a misguided attempt by this administration to stem the flow across the southern border.”
“The large majority of these children have already experienced trauma before arriving at immigration facilities, and the longer they are held in detention, the more likely their mental health will continue to suffer,” Diaz-Granado said.