Scientific statement by ISDP and ICIS on current U.S. government policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border

June 20, 2018

Isolating children from their caregivers and families leads to abnormal development by creating physiological and psychological trauma. The scientific study of child development suggests that the newly announced policy of the Trump administration of separating children from parents is likely to have both negative immediate physiological effects on the developing stress system and long-term effects both psychological and physiological as well.  Decades of work on children separated from families and placed into institutions support this science.

On April 19, 2018 U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions announced a change in U.S. policy where all immigrants entering illegally would be held in detention centers, and in so doing, all children would be separated from parents because children cannot be held in adult detention centers. This change in policy is a response to discourage immigrants due to a stated 37% increase in illegal border crossings.

Separating children from caregivers and placing families in situations of extreme uncertainty with respect to reunification is a form of toxic stress. This is not only a psychological, but also a physiological response. An experience of chronic or prolonged stress may lead to the development of anxiety disorders or mood disorders, such as depression. Individuals suffering from stress may also experience an inability to sleep, a decreased or increased appetite, a propensity towards alcohol or drug consumption, and a decreased interest in social or physical activities.

Separating young children from their families also has significant effects on the developing brain, which is highly influenced by childhood experiences. There are specific regions of the brain that continue to mature throughout adolescence and that are affected more extremely by stress particularly in early life. It is intuitive that stressful experiences shape changing systems more than systems that are already developed. The critical role of nurturing relationships for children has been identified as fundamental to normal human development and resilience. Young children depend on stable, responsive caregiving from adults they know well. A strong caregiver relationship can prevent or lessen the activation of the stress response through a process known as social buffering. Without effective parental social buffering, the normal development of the brain can be altered, with enduring adverse effects on children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Placing children in detention centers will put children at very high risk for poor mental and physical health outcomes. As a developmental organization with a global scope, in order to enhance productive and adaptive lives of all global citizens, especially the youngest, we urge the cessation of the current policy of separation.

The International Society for Developmental Psychobiology is dedicated to research on the development of behavior in all organisms including human beings, with special attention to the effects of biological factors operating at any level of organization.

The International Congress of Infant Studies is the foremost scientific organization for researchers studying behavioral and psychological development in infancy, devoted to the promotion and dissemination of research through our official journal, Infancy, and our biennial meeting.