Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, testified Feb. 7 before the Oversight Committee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the administration’s family separation policy. During the hearing, which was held to investigate the response of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the family separation policy implemented at the U.S. border with Mexico last year, Shonkoff shared his expert insight on the impact of trauma.                     

“My testimony today is based on strong scientific consensus supported by decades of peer-reviewed research. Sudden, forcible separation of children from their parents is deeply traumatic for both the child and the parent. Above and beyond the distress we see “on the outside,” this triggers a massive biological stress response “inside” the child, which remains activated until the parent returns and provides comfort. Continuing separation removes the most important protection a child can possibly have to prevent long-term damage—a loving adult who’s totally devoted to his or her well-being,” said Shonkoff.

He added that, “All children who were abruptly separated from familiar caregivers at the border experienced overwhelming stress. Will some survive without significant problems? The answer is yes. Will many be seriously impaired for the rest of their lives? The answer again is yes. … From a scientific perspective, the initial separation and the lack of rapid reunification are both indefensible. Forcibly separating children from their parents is like setting a house on fire. Prolonging that separation is like preventing the first responders from doing their job.”

As the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities noted in its statement last summer, the standards of care for these children must be equal to that expected in our current child welfare system, which, at a minimum, should include access to a safe environment appropriate for families, age-appropriate services including education, trauma-informed mental and other health services, and family-based legal and immigration counseling.

The healthy development of all children and youth is essential for a thriving and prosperous society. We have learned critical information in the last decade about the most effective ways to foster the health and well-being of families today and for generations to come. Brain science research has uncovered the basic physiological processes that support healthy development for infants and young children.

To ensure and restore healthy developmental trajectories for children, adults, and families, the Change in Mind Institute at the Alliance vigorously supports policy and program decisions that draw on decades of behavioral and social science research, as well as recent discoveries in neuroscience, molecular biology, and epigenetics. Through the Institute, we look to increase the common understanding of the core story of brain development and operate as a hub for disseminating knowledge, providing training and technical assistance on the integration of brain science research, and engaging in cross-sector innovation on the transformation of organizations, sectors, and systems as they adapt to the new applications of the science.

The Alliance supports Shonkoff’s testimony and urges the administration and Congress to immediately end the harmful and traumatizing practices of separating children from their parents and put into place the necessary processes and resources to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of children who have been taken by the U.S. at the border. We would not allow this to happen to U.S. children in other countries. We should not allow it to happen in our country.  

Read Shonkoff’s full testimony and learn more about the Change in Mind Institute online.

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