As It Happens

U.S. policy of separating migrant families is 'government-mandated child abuse,' says pediatrician

Tara Neubrand has treated migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border. She fears trauma puts these children at risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Dr. Tara Neubrand says foster parents aren't given family or medical info about the children in their care

Children listen to speakers during an immigration family separation protest in front of the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. District Court building on Monday, June 18 in Phoenix, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
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U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the end to a controversial policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border last week.

But there are still 2,053 children in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Reuters.

Dr. Tara Neubrand, a pediatric emergency medicine physician, has treated three children who were recently separated from their parents and placed in foster care in Colorado. 

She warns the trauma she has seen in these children may follow them for years.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

Dr. Neubrand, what was the first thing that struck you when you met these toddlers?

The first thing that struck me was that their behaviour was really significantly abnormal. Toddlers — even when they're in the emergency room — run around. They climb on the bed. They climb on the walls. They pull things out of the drawers. These kids were sitting in their foster mothers' laps with their chests pushed against their foster mothers', and their arms wrapped around their necks and absolutely would not let go. They would not get down and wouldn't interact with me in any way. All of that is really, really abnormal.

A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, on June 17, 2018. (U.S Customs and Border Protection/Handout/Reuters)

What did their foster mothers tell you about how these children are acting, not just just in your office, but at home as well?

They told me that the children were acting exactly the same way even at their foster homes. They had to be in constant physical contact with their foster mothers. One foster mother told me that she was having trouble even giving the little girl a bath because she would hold so tightly onto her. [The girl] would kick and scream and cry, so she couldn't get her into the bathtub safely.

I understand there was one little boy and he just kept yelling something over and over again. What was that?

I was asking one of the foster moms about why the little boy was so clingy. She got really upset and tearful and just kept repeating to me over and over again, "I'm just trying not to ruin his life, I'm just trying not to ruin his life." And she told me the little boy kept yelling out "Papa, Papa, Papa" all day long — every day — and she couldn't help him because she didn't even know where his Papa was.

What are your worries long-term for these kids?

I'm worried that they're going to have long-term physical and psychiatric problems because of this trauma. There is really good data out there that shows that children, when exposed to this type of toxic stress, have lifelong difficulties in terms of their or their ability behaviour to form relationships, and even things like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

In the short term, these children come to their foster families with really no information on their medications, or their medical history. We count on having that information when we [treat] kids. To have them show up with none of that information — and no one to ask — makes it in a very unsafe situation.

Salvadoran migrant Epigmenio Centeno holds the hand of his three-year-old son Steven Atonay in Ciudad Juarez after he decided to stay with his children in Mexico due to U.S. President Donald Trump's child separation policy. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Did these foster families have any indication of how long the children would be in their care?

No they didn't. They really didn't know anything. They knew that the [migrant] families were being detained by ICE but they didn't know where. They didn't know if there was going to be any reunification process. They didn't have any contact information for the parents. They didn't know if contact would be allowed, and they didn't have a case manager that they could speak to to get this information.

Tara Neubrand is a pediatric emergency-medicine physician in Denver, Colorado. (submitted by Tara Neubrand)

How do you think the foster families are handling this?

They're trying. These are caring, experienced foster families who are really doing their best. But they were very, very much aware that their best was just not good enough for helping these kids with the trauma that they were going through. They didn't speak Spanish. They didn't know even for sure if the children spoke Spanish or one of the other indigenous languages from Central America. When the kids would cry for their parents, they couldn't tell them anything that was reassuring because they didn't know anything. That was really hard on these on these families.

You've said that this feels like 'government-mandated child abuse.' Can you explain what you meant by that?

Intentional harm was being caused to [these children] by taking them away from their parents. We do have cases occasionally when children are separated from their parents, but in all of those cases we have Child Protective Services whose only job is to advocate for these children — to do what's best for the child.

There's a lot of effort in keeping siblings together: doing kinship placements with family members, going through pretty intensive reunification processes and steps so biological parents can keep and regain custody of their children.

In this case it was so different because Child Protective Services wasn't involved. There was no one to advocate for these kids. It was a complete reversal of what we typically see when there's any kind of family separation.

Has all of this impacted the way you see your country?

As a citizen and taxpayer I really don't like my own money and my own representation being used for this. It is not how I want my country to be viewed, it's not how I want resources to be used. It's not consistent with what I feel like is the best thing for my country. And it makes me sad. It makes me really sad.

Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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