Refugee Child Crisis

Unexpected events in my own life have interrupted my blogging for a while, but I cannot resist writing briefly about the horrendous treatment of children seeking refuge in our country.

Though there is much misinformation circulating about the lost immigrant children and who's to blame (see here), the fact remains that many immigrant children are being separated from their parents and moved to detention centers alone, and this practice is quite frankly atrocious. Not only is it a humanitarian crisis, but it also dramatically increases the likelihood that these children, who will now be living with us, will suffer future challenges and delinquency in adulthood due the the trauma associated with losing their families. Because, no matter your race or country of origin, early adverse events are major risk factors associated with later delinquency. In other words, the government's treatment of immigrants as criminals is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy which only serves to lower quality of life of these children, and of our own.

The obvious alternative is to use what we know about child development to improve the health of our society. This includes the people we offer safe-haven here, who will now be members of our communities. What is the use of science if we don't use it to guide our policies to bring us all a better future?

First, the reason children are being separated from their parents is because (1) previous administrations (both republican and democrat) took action to give refugee children, who are fleeing violence, sanctuary in the United States, (2) more recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions implemented a zero tolerance policy for adults. In the past, adults attached to children would be given a pass into the country. Now, the answer is a firm "no" to adult refugees entering illegally, even if this means separating the child from his/her family and bringing the child in as, for all practical purposes, an orphan.

And then what happens to these little ones when they lose their families as they enter a foreign country? Do you think they all get loving families? Even our own orphans are rarely so lucky. What is the psychological toll of this experience, even if they are lucky enough to be well-placed? What do they endure on their way through our doors?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, article here) assesses the conditions the US Health and Human Services provides to these child refugees, and deems them entirely inadequate. Whether they arrived alone or were separated from parents upon arrival, these "unaccompanied" children are retained in detention centers. In the AAP article you can find the following description of the detention center conditions that these freshly separated children must endure, "Reports by advocacy organizations, including interviews with detainees and the DHS Office of Inspector General, have cataloged egregious conditions in many of the centers, including lack of bedding (eg, sleeping on cement floors), open toilets, no bathing facilities, constant light exposure, confiscation of belongings, insufficient food and water, and lack of access to legal counsel and a history of extremely cold temperatures." The article also describes both physical and emotional mistreatment in these facilities. 

If you are on my site, you likely have children. Imagine your own child suffering the experience of losing you in a strange land after fleeing dangers from home, and then, alone and terrified, suffering the conditions described by the AAP. We should take care of children simply because they are innocents. But if that idealistic sentiment isn't reason enough for our politicians, we should consider adequate child care a practical preventative measure designed to protect the health of our country at large. Because children who grow up with inadequate parental care and in impoverished conditions are at far higher risk of delinquency and criminal behavior later in life.

"Growing up in an adverse environment increases the likelihood that a young person will become involved in serious criminal activity during adolescence."
~Quoted from chapter 3 of Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice.

Linked here is an academic review of research on child risk factors that lead to later delinquency and criminal activity. Luckily, there is a very large body of research on childhood factors linked with delinquency, and this research tends to come up with the same conclusions pretty consistently. In other words, scientists are in agreement that the greatest risk factors for later delinquency include (1) lack of economic resources, and (2) inadequate parental care.

For example, children born to single parent households are found to be at higher risk of delinquency than those born to two parent households. But this correlation is entirely due to the fact that single parent households tend to be more economically challenged, and the parent struggles to provide adequate childcare while working. However, when a single mother has enough money to support her kids and provide good childcare, her kids are equally likely to turn out A-OK as those from two parent homes. Delinquency has nothing to do with family structure, it has to do with available resources and quality of care.

Related to quality of care is child neglect and abuse, which is also strongly associated with later delinquency. Research finds that the refugee children separated from their families are much more likely to experience neglect and abuse relative to children who have the protection of their parents. They are also predestined to experience a variety of emotional, psychological, and physical challenges the moment they are detained. These refugee children have experienced adversity before they reach our detention centers, but from within a family to emotionally, psychologically, and physically support and protect them. But once they arrive here, WE impose adversity that, to a child, is far more frightening: Removing their parents and leaving them to face the monsters alone. Sometimes, as so accurately depicted in some of our favorite Hollywood movies, the best way to survive the monsters is to become one. Which begs the question, what will this hardened patriotism do to our country, and to our species?


Rizzo, Salvador. "Fact-checking immigration spin on separating families and 1,500 ‘lost’ children." Washington Post, May 30th 2018. 

Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2001. Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Linton, Julie M., Marsha Griffin, Alan J. Shapiro, COUNCIL ON COMMUNITY PEDIATRICS. Detention of Immigrant Children. Pediatrics. 2017; Policy Statement.


© Sarah Dean, PhD