Call it what it is: Child abuse

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected] 

By Eric Mink

I don’t know what Donald Trump’s campaign marketing slogan, Make America Great Again, means, if anything.

But I am certain of one thing: There will be no greatness of any kind for a United States of America that uses child abuse as a tool of immigration enforcement.

What awaits down the dark road we are on is only disgrace, dishonor and damnation for those who have authorized it, practiced it, looked the other way or tried to rationalize the degenerate cruelty and gratuitous meanness of the Trump operations.

“Child abuse” is a deadly serious term, and I do not use it casually or for rhetorical effect.

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“This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse,” Dr. Colleen Kraft said.

Kraft is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 66,000 pediatricians and pediatric subspecialists in the United States. She spoke to reporters after visiting a detention facility for immigrant children this spring in Combes, Texas.

Most of the families caught up in Trump’s attacks on immigrants had fled their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to escape out-of-control violence, personal/family threats of death and governments that were unwilling or unable to protect them. Some of those governments, in fact, have been instigators of violence against their own people.

Out of other options for protecting their families, these parents somehow found more courage than most of us ever will be called upon to show and braved a long, expensive and dangerous journey from Central America, through Mexico and finally to the southern border of the United States, which they desperately crossed without legal authorization.

U.S. law, however, does not require criminal prosecution of all migrants that enter the country without authorization. Before Trump and his mob —chief of staff John Kelly, adviser Stephen Miller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions  —  took over, first offenses typically had been pursued as misdemeanors for which jail was not necessary. Nor was having your terrified children ripped out of your arms and taken away.

But earlier this year, Trump threw out the misdemeanor option as he endlessly repeated the lie that immigrants were increasing crime and violence in the U.S. Multiple sets of statistics show the exact opposite is true. 

Instead, he instituted a so-called zero-tolerance policy that requires criminal prosecution of everyone caught crossing the border without authorization. The drastic increase in separations of children from their parents flowed directly from that choice.

When Kraft described U.S. government immigration policies and practices as child abuse, she was not exaggerating. She was drawing upon landmark medical research first published in 1998 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente. Its findings have since been replicated and advanced in follow-up studies, reviews and reports in the fields of neuroscience, epigenetics and more.

The original 1998 research devised a new framework for thinking about and understanding the relationship between human health and what researchers labeled Adverse Childhood Experiences. Depending on their severity and frequency, traumatic events and circumstances generate three broad categories of stress on young people.

If kids and adolescents get support from adults when they experience the routine stresses of life, the positive stress can be a helpful part of growing up. More distressing experiences create more intense stress, but if trusted adults are present to help a child endure the events, the stress is considered tolerable. 

The most severe form, toxic stress, is associated with very high levels of stress hormones generated within children by situations that are terribly disturbing, frightening, violent, disorienting and/or long-lasting. Something like, say, being suddenly snatched from your parents by strangers after a long and hazardous journey, being unable to communicate with your parents, not knowing where they are and not knowing if you’ll ever see them again. Something like, say, being confined in a detention camp at an unknown location in a foreign country with a language you don’t speak and customs you don’t know.

Toxic stress disrupts the developing circuits in a child’s brain. It increases the chances for developmental delays and leaves the young person more likely, later in life, to contract such physical and psychological illnesses as heart disease, diabetes, depression, addiction disorders and more.

The terrible and potentially lifelong effect of toxic stress on children is not some obscure experimental concept. Over the past 20 years, it has become widely known medical science.

Little wonder that Kraft’s personal and professional dismay and outrage has been echoed in separate statements by the leaders of the American College of Physicians (154,000 members), the American Psychological Association (115,000 members) and the American Psychiatric Association (37,800 members). 

Trump’s executive order of June 20, issued under intense public pressure, supposedly ended new separations of immigrant parents and children, but it did nothing to restore the already separated children to their families.

On June 26, federal District Judge Dana M. Sabraw ordered Trump to do so for children under 5 — about 100, by a changing government count — by July 9. The judge gave Trump until July 26 to do the same for around 3,000 older kids. Sabraw ruled that much of what the Trump administration had been doing to immigrants was an unconstitutional sham — especially when it came to the children.

“The practice of separating these families,” Sabraw wrote, “was implemented without any effective system or procedure for (1) tracking the children after they were separated from their parents, (2) enabling communication between the parents and their children after separation, and (3) reuniting the parents and children after the parents are returned to immigration custody following completion of their criminal sentence… The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process.”

When July 9 arrived, Justice Department lawyers told Sabraw that only 54 of the 102 children under 5 would be reunited with families by the deadline. But on July 10, they told the court only four reunifications had taken place so far, with only 34 more “expected” by the end of the day.  

A final relevant religious note: Officials at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the United Methodist Church are reviewing a formal complaint filed June 18 against one of its lay members, one U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in connection with his role in designing, supervising and defending the Trump immigration policies.

The complaint was signed by 640 clergy and lay members of the church, including 13 from Missouri and 38 from Illinois. It accuses Sessions of having committed four “chargeable offenses.” 

First on the list of offenses is child abuse.