A Troubling Prognosis for Migrant Children in Detention: ‘The Earlier They’re Out, the Better’

A Troubling Prognosis for Migrant Children in Detention: ‘The Earlier They’re Out, the Better’


Dr. Bowlby’s attachment theory informs many approaches to the treatment of children torn from their parents by circumstance or, in the case of current administration policy, by design.

Kalina Brabeck, a psychologist at Rhode Island College who works with immigrant children who lose their parents to deportation or for other reasons, said that the experience of loss often leads to a form of post-traumatic stress — the paralyzing vigilance, avoidance and emotional gusts first identified in war veterans.

Most of the children held on the border will have accumulated traumas, Dr. Brabeck said. Even before their parents were detained, many already had run the gauntlet of immigration itself, fleeing with little resources from often violent communities.

One goal of treatment, she said, is to overcome what is a daily identity crisis.

“We try to get them to tell a story: who they are, where they were born, what they’re good at, their migration story,” she said. “We may do that with pictures and drawings, as well as words — to walk through it in very detailed way.”

The therapy includes grief counseling, she said, and prodding the children to confront unconscious assumptions — for example, that the world is an inherently unsafe place. “We also work to connect them to other supports, like coaches, teachers and churches,” she said.

For all the dislocation, strangeness and pain of being separated forcibly from parents, many children can and do recover, said Mary Dozier, a professor of child development at the University of Delaware.

“Not all of them — some kids never recover,” Dr. Dozier said. “But I’ve been amazed at how well kids can do after institutionalization if they’re able to have responsive and nurturing care afterward.”

“The earlier they’re out, the better,” she added. “The most important thing for these children now is what we do next.”



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