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Thursday, July 5, 2018 12:15 am

A psychiatrist on separating children

 When I was obtaining my master’s degree in public administration, perhaps the most influential topic I took was ethics in public administration. One of the focuses of that course was administrative evil.

Our discussions on the topic centered on how individuals who in their personal lives were often kind and loving to family and friends could in their public roles enact government policies that had a devastating impact on individuals.

Of course the prime case in point was Nazi Germany. Once individuals or groups of people were identified as the source of the country’s problems (intellectuals, Jews, gypsies, Slavs, etc.), they were legally marginalized.

Once marginalized, laws and government policies were enacted to deal with these “problems” and groups of public workers then enforced these policies. I am not talking about just concentration camp workers or Gestapo or SS soldiers. These were ordinary government officials who did little things efficiently as part of their job, far from the concentration camps that ultimately enabled the horror of the Holocaust to occur.

As a child psychiatrist who spent my professional career trying to put together programs to prevent the traumatization of children, I am stunned by the administrative evil that is occurring on our border with our country’s current treatment of children who have been brought into the country by their parents illegally.

If someone wanted to design a program to traumatize children with the hope of producing Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children, they would do what our country is currently doing.

Reactive Attachment Disorder occurs in infants and young children when they are placed in situations like an institution with high child-to-caregiver ratios and frequent changes in the individuals providing care to the child. Even if basic comfort needs are met, if the child lacks people showing affection and a positively stimulating environment, their ability to form attachment to people may be impaired for life.

PTSD in children occurs when an individual experiences what they perceive as an event potentially life-threatening, either to themselves or to their primary caregiver. With PTSD, even after the situation has resolved, the individual has disabling intrusive memories of the event, often triggered by things that remind them of the traumatic event. There can be subsequent irritable angry outbursts with little or no provocation and social withdrawal. Being torn away from your parent who is led away by men with guns and then placed with other screaming children in a children’s internment camp qualifies as a sufficiently traumatic event.

The Trump administration policy of separating these children from their parents appeared to be a means of deterring illegal immigration. Only after a public outcry over the treatment of these children were we told that the administration has no choice but to enforce the law.

Maybe Trump stuck to the original narrative that only Congress could end this practice in the hope that he would get an immigration bill that not only dealt with our treatment of immigrant children but also gave him funding for his beloved border wall.

That this was nonsense was made apparent when President Trump issued an executive order bringing the practice to a halt. There is now a court order requiring that children be reunified with their parents. However, if the mental health services needed to mitigate the impact of this trauma are not provided with adequate intensity, the impact of the trauma will persist.

If our country has any claim to a moral high ground, we must contact our U.S. representatives and senators to insist they pass a bill that formally stops the practice and authorizes the funding for quality mental health services for these children. Anyone who refuses to support such an effort or plays politics by supporting it only if it is tied to other immigration issues does not deserve your vote in November.  

Stephen Soltys of Springfield is a retired child psychiatrist who still teaches on a volunteer basis at the SIU School of Medicine.

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