Science Is Clear on Family Separations

By Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity in the Human Development and Family Science Department at the University of Missouri 

June 29, 2018

Professor Gustavo Carlo

Professor Gustavo Carlo

After the U.S. Department of Justice announced the “Zero Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” approximately 2,000 children were separated from their parents after crossing the border in April and May 2018. Not only were families separated they were not told when, how or if they would be reunited. As a professor of human development and family science, these policies give me great concern, even now that an executive order has been issued stating that families should not be separated.

In my 30 years studying child development, the evidence is clear that family separation is harmful and even brief separations can negatively impact child outcomes.

The research findings that family separation is harmful dates back to studies on the effects of parent-child separations on children’s well-being during World War II. This research documented the toxic effects of these separations into adulthood, including increased risk for mental health problems, poor social functioning, insecure attachment, disrupted stress reactivity and mortality. I recently co-authored a policy brief for the Society for Research in Child Development that explains the harmful effects of parent-child separation.

Prior research has shown that countries with supportive integration policies are more likely to have child populations with better overall health and mental health indicators than those with less supportive approaches. This means that separating families can have a negative impact on the health of our communities and American citizens as well.

Recently, a federal judge ordered for the rapid reunification of families. Although this is an urgent matter, it is apparent that the system is disorganized and that it will take much time before these families are reunited. Meanwhile, each day, the risk and suffering of these children and their families accumulates.

The scientific evidence is clear. Separating families leads to significant problems that have cascading negative consequences that remain even after reunification. It is imperative that policymakers not endorse policies that result in the maltreatment of children and families.

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