Progressive Views: Child Trauma

by Steven M. Smith, Ph.D.
for the “Progressive Views” column, Boerne Star, May 17, 2019

Stylized image of child looking out window
“Look” by jurek d. is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

The virtue of justice consists in moderation, regulated by wisdom.


The absence of appropriate restraint and lack of forethought in the handling of immigrant children crossing into the border if not appalling is criminal.  How could anyone or any governmental entity place a child in a penned fence in the dirt under an international bridge?  Only a person or entity with a lack of moral consciousness would pervert justice to such a degree.  The lack of a moral conscious was well portrayed in a political cartoon published in The Week, whereby an elephant dressed in a suit with a lapel pin stating ‘Pro Life’ remarked “We need to do everything we can to protect our babies.”  In the next frame the elephant peers down upon a group of brown skin babies in the dirt in a cage and states, “But Not You!”  While this may seem exaggerated the hypocrisy is a realism and has lasting and devastating effect on those children, if not our nation.

Gary Priour, Director of the Hill Country Youth Ranch, in a recent article stated that “the first thing a child needs to know when they come to live in a home away from their biological family is they are safe.”  While a child may respond to an atmosphere of safety there are behavioral patterns established in fear, conflict and survival instincts.  The next step, which our Border Patrol and Protection (BPP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS, if there is such a thing given the recent killings across the nation) do not address is a process of understanding what has happened to the child and to begin building a bridge of trust.  There is a field of study grown right here in Texas for over 40 years dealing with child trauma.  That field of research is referred to as Trauma Informed Care.

The late Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University’s Child Development Institute invoked science into the awareness that treating behaviors is not a sufficient strategy to help a child to find his or her way to wholeness.  Moreover, what causes a child to mistrust should be brought to light.  Brain imaging studies by Dr. Purvis brought to the forefront that normal development does not occur in the brains of abused and neglected children.  However, with the correct care and course of study and therapy, over time, such development can be fully restored.

Okay; let us take up those three caveats.  One: with the ‘correct care’.  How could anyone in their right mind imagine that BPP, ICE or DHS could provide correct care with the goal of the restoration of that child?  Our federal government pushes that aspect of care and individual course of study off to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  By the time DHHS receives the child the psychological damage the child has endured in his or her journey to the border has been exacerbated by federal border security agencies.  Two: the idea that any ‘therapy’ exists for these children after being detained is an absolute panacea.  The modality of Trauma Informed Care has swept the nation in implementation and is a core treatment protocol for mental health and medical personnel today.  However, it is not a subject of concern for our federal agencies.  These children are left to their own devices as to how to ‘figure things out’.  Three: the idealization that development can be fully restored within the current immigration detention debacle is an absurdity at least.  Wire cages, tent cities, forced separation from parents and siblings, detention camps and being dropped off at the Greyhound bus station are as antithetical to emotional and psychological healing as President Trump’s tweets are from the truth. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, as of February 2,654 children were forcibly separated from their parents by border protection agencies.  Of that number approximately half were under the age of ten years.  The length of separation ranged from 154 to 370 days. 

The crisis at the border was a crisis manufactured by the Trump administration and that crisis has grown exponentially.  President Trump used potential criminality as one of the justifications for the increased border security.  Within the next decade the fear of immigrant criminality will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as these traumatized children approach young adulthood.  There was no moderation in the application of justice at the border and the application was void of wisdom.

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