Let’s not forget the tragedy of separating children from their parents

Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald
Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald

Democracy and social justice are being sorely tested in both Israel and the United States. But President Trump’s actions have gone beyond the imaginable harm that our country could inflict on children—ruthless separation from their parents.

It’s been over two years since the outcry over the shocking news that our government systematically and deliberately separated children from their parents at the U.S. southern border. Some have referred to this as the most inexcusable scandal of the Trump presidency. But our nation’s attention has been incessantly distracted by relentless scandals caused by our president. Currently, reports of the gross mishandling of the COVID pandemic and the fascist military tactics deployed in our cities are consuming the media.

When I became aware of NBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff’s new book, Separated Inside an American Tragedy, I felt a sense of shame and grief. How could I so quickly lose focus on what many people believe is the most heinous and cruel action of the Trump administration, forcibly separating more than 5,500 children from their parents? And it is still happening. These children and their families are still suffering.

Soboroff and other journalists have documented the horrors inflicted by our government on these children: there are many instances of children being ripped from their parents’ arms, physical as well as sexual abuse by guards, and neglected medical care resulting in tragic deaths.

My experience as a now-retired clinical social worker with children, in both adoption and foster care, and in a university pediatric clinic, informs my understanding of the devastating impact our government’s actions will have on these children.

For the past 17 years, I have been active in social justice movements, including fighting against genocide. Recently, I produced a short documentary film, Faces of Genocide, that features interviews with survivors of genocides from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Chivy Sok, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, is featured in my film. She describes the horror of being separated from her mother. When she was six years old, the Khmer Rouge force-marched the residents of major cities into the countryside. The children were separated from their parents and put into forced-labor camps. Children, fed meager food, had to work in the fields, walking among dead bodies. Chivy remembers feeling constantly hungry.

But not knowing when or if she would ever see her mother again is Chivy’s worst memory—more terrifying than being in the labor camp and seeing people dying around her.

One of the most terrifying experiences for a child is to be inexplicably taken from his/her parents.

Soboroff’s book stirred my awareness that, among the many shameful actions taken by the Trump administration, the separation of children from their families is the most egregious, most cruel and most inhumane.

Most of these parents were fleeing perilous situations in their countries. They were already stressed and compromised—and then our government kidnapped their children, put them in cages and put the parents in jails.

The Nobel prize winning organization, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), issued a scathing report about the Trump administration’s family separation policy. In it, the group declares “the government’s forcible separation of asylum-seeking families constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and in all cases PHR evaluated meet criteria for torture.”

There were many outcries and efforts to stop this cruel policy, mostly to no avail. Finally, in June 2018 a federal court ordered the separations to cease and to reunite the children and parents. But, according to Soboroff and others, most of these children have not been reunited as there has been no systematic record or tracking of these children. In spite of the court order, separations continue.

President Trump has gotten away with many cruel actions, however, among the worst is the abuse of over 5,500 children and their parents. The damaging and traumatic effects on these families, especially the children, will be long-lasting.

How can we ignore the humanitarian crime of separating children from their parents?

About the Author
Gayle grew up in Houston, Texas where her father was deeply involved with the Jewish community and was a philanthropic supporter of Israel. Through him she became an active supporter of Israel. She is a retired social worker (child welfare, adoptions, pediatric) and psychotherapist. For 19 years she wrote and published a quarterly newsletter ("Pediatric and Family Practice Alert") for pediatricians and family practitioners, and has had multiple opinion pieces and letters to the editor published in San Francisco Bay Area publications.
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