The Trauma of Familial Separation

Around the U.S., people have been outraged by the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families when detained at the southern border. Our nation’s collective heart broke when we saw images of these “tent villages” that so eerily resemble Nazi concentration and Japanese internment camps and heard the cries and pleas of the children to be reunited with their parents and family members. Trump is absolutely right when he said, “the crying babies don’t look good politically.” It was the widespread criticism and backlash from the country, Democrats and Republicans largely united, that drove Trump to sign the executive order Wednesday afternoon, not that he “didn’t like the sight or feeling of families being separated” or that he suddenly “felt very strongly on it.” Trump’s executive order on family separations does not include special efforts to reunite the 2,300 children already separated from their families, some of whom the government admits, between shuffling parents to different states or already deporting them, they have no way of knowing where these families are.  Further, Trump’s executive order, gaping with loopholes, does not guarantee a family will be kept together after 20 days of detention.

I watch what my nation is doing with horror and from the lens of someone who has experienced the trauma of being separated from my family when I was young. I was the same age as many of these children when I was institutionalized. The anger may come later, but today I write a very personal piece with the sadness and grief that I continue to carry with me.

I was two years old when I was taken to the police station in Nanjing, China and arrived on the evening of April 4th, 1996. Nothing is known about who I was, how I got there, who brought me, or how long I had been separated from my parents already. There are a lot of hypotheses about what happened to me as a toddler, a potential casualty of China’s One Child Policy or the possibility that I had simply wandered away and gotten lost, but none of these can be confirmed. What I do know is that first night I slept at the police station, and the next day they took me to the Nanjing Social Welfare Institute where I lived for a little over one year. The way that many of these children were separated from their families at the southern border involved police and handcuffs. Not knowing the cultural references these children hold, perhaps some of these kids feared that their parents would be killed. I cannot imagine the lasting scars of this type of fear.

Shell shocked. That’s the only way to describe the boy on the television last night. There was a news story about a 10-year-old boy who had been separated from his deported Guatemalan parents and placed in foster care in the U.S. for the last eight months. He was just recently reunited with his parents in Guatemala, and he stood blank and emotionless in what was a tearful reunion for his parents.  Shell shocked was also what I was when I first came to the orphanage in Nanjing and when I came to the hotel and met my adoptive parents for the first time. Unable to scream or express myself in a different language, I stood limp as two large teardrops fell down my cheeks. I remained silent for nine days, and I later learned that silence was the same coping mechanism I used when I first arrived at the orphanage. In a tumultuous, ever-changing situation over which I had no control, my voice was the one thing I could control. Other children in my travel group used other methods like refusing to drink or poop – simple little things that we could hold onto in these confusing moments when our worlds were tipped upside down.

I think of this poor child and the traumas he has suffered and how confused he must be. He is presently reunited with his family, which is what he longed for, but he is grieving two losses. The first is the original separation between him and his family and the second is the new separation and loss of the foster family he has come to love in the last year. I think so often the carers are forgotten, but genuine attachments are made to these people, too, as evident by my orphanage nanny’s excitement to see me 10 and 18 years later respectively. What’s more, I think of the luxuries he has been afforded by living with an affluent family in the U.S. this past year and the poverty faced by his family in Guatemala. It will be natural for him to miss his foster family and the lifestyle he had there, and it will also be natural from him to feel guilty for wanting those things again.  With parents trying to raise other children and simply survive, what resources will be available to support the boy in sorting out his myriad of emotions?

After the first several, forlorn months in the United States where I was visibly sad and lost looking constantly, I finally became a happy, creative, and funny child in public. But the sadness hadn’t escaped me, and the trauma of being separated from my family and shuffled from home to home and country to country came out strongly at night.  Something many people don’t know about me is that I didn’t sleep through the night for years after I was adopted. I didn’t have the typical childhood fears of the dark or of monsters in my closet and under my bed. My monsters were in my head, and it was sleep itself that I feared most. I was so terrified that if I fell asleep, I would wake up in a new place surrounded by new faces with no one I knew around. I never took naps as a child, and I resisted going to bed if possible. How do you console a child whose fears are so explainable, so rooted in experience? My parents couldn’t say, “Oh honey, that will never happen to you,” because it did happen to me. I knew from a young age that in the blink of an eye everything could change. To help with this fear, for many months after I was adopted, my dad slept on the floor in my room so that when I did wake up crying in the middle of the night, he was there right away.

I am so grateful that my parents had the training and insight to know that for me, not sleeping wasn’t an issue of being naughty or defiant, rather based in trauma, and did what they could to alleviate my fears. But it weighs my heart to know that many of these children, even if they are able to be reunited with their families, will have these same or different fears because of this unnecessary separation.

Even for the children at the border who are able to be reunited, this separation will make lasting psychological impacts. According to a Washington Post article, “Children who have undergone traumatic separation often cling desperately to their parents after they are reunited and refuse to let them out of their sight, say therapists and child psychologists. Many suffer from separation anxiety, cry uncontrollably and have trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares.” In addition to the sleeping issues I experienced, I exhibited many of these symptoms of separation anxiety, including following my mom around the house, panicking if she was late to pick me up, and crying at the top of the stairs when she went to her monthly book group. I had an extremely hard time with saying goodbye to people I loved. I remember wailing after saying good-bye to my godparents in Florida, and my mother tried to comfort me by saying that we’d see them again. But when was again – Next week? Next year? Or was that just something people said to make you feel better when they truly don’t know when or if again will come? When I was young I told my mom I wanted to live in a giant house with all of the people I loved. This seems like a wonderful way for a child to never have to say goodbye again.

Though I was capable of going on playdates and doing activities without them, I had an extremely hard time whenever my parents did something without me. I think this is due to the perceived level of control I had in my own activities, but if my parents left me, what guarantee was there that they would come back?  My separation anxiety again revealed itself when my mother tried to give me a time-out once. She placed me at the top of the stairs for an allotted amount of time, and I sobbed the entire time because I couldn’t see her. My mother soon realized that the anguish I experienced from that time-out was much more severe than whatever minor grievance I had committed, and I was never placed in time-out again. [Another post by an adoptee on time outs: here]

When I was young, I was deeply terrified of the possibility that my parents would be taken from me. I asked my parents repeatedly what would happen to me if they died or disappeared, and every time they responded that my Aunt and Uncle were my guardians, and if that unfortunate situation were to occur, I would live with them. I would follow up with the question of what would happen to me if my parents and my guardians all died. And while this situation is highly unlikely, it was a real concern of mine because I did not want to be parentless again. When I was around six years old, my parents amended their will, and I remember their meeting with the lawyer. In this update, my parents created a set of back-up guardians for me in case something happened to my parents and my guardians. The lawyer looked puzzled stating that she had never known of a child who needed back-up guardians, but my parents’ primary concern was easing my anxieties if possible, and this was one concrete way of eliminating one major fear. For both my guardians and my backup guardians, my parents chose couples who had adopted internationally because they thought people who were adoptive parents already would be better prepared to address my needs as an adoptee, especially if I had faced yet another heartbreaking loss.

In addition to the fear of my parents being taken from me, I also feared the possibility of me being taken from my parents. I remember that I perceived the window in my childhood bedroom as a potential threat. I figured if someone broke into the house, they’d have to come down the long hallway, and surely my parents would hear something, but if someone tried to kidnap me from the window in my room, they would be right there. I naturally slept facing the door of my bedroom but trained myself to sleep facing the window, so I could see more immediately if a threat came to my room that way. I also kept a pair of little, rounded, kid scissors in my room near the window, so that if the threat came from the other side of the house, I could cut my way through the window screen. And while to an adult ear, my elaborate scheming against kidnapping might appear a bit dramatic, it seemed like a definite possibility to me – again a fear rooted in experience. When I was three-years-old, I didn’t know of the legal processes of adoption that my parents went through. What I did know was that being plopped from the arms of my nanny to the arms of two strangers felt like being kidnapped.

It sickens me to read stories like this New Yorker article, which describes a visit by Dr. Alicia Hart to a detention center in southern Texas. After seeing a little boy, she asked the clinician, “‘When is this child going to be reunited with his parents?’ He was evasive. First it was ‘Oh, well, we don’t know.’ And then it was ‘Well, he won’t be reunited with his parents unless he behaves.’” To know one’s parents is a universal human right listed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to punish a child’s behavior by denying a basic human right is child abuse.

When I was young, China was a place I loved and longed for but it was also a place that I feared. I worried that if I didn’t behave well or excel or wasn’t perfect in some way that my parents would send me back to China without them. This is a common fear for adoptees. I cried once to my mother, asking her why I had to be perfect all the time. She, of course, told me that I didn’t have to be perfect and that she would always love me. But patterns of thought and behaviors get laid down young, and perfectionism is something I still struggle with to this day from little things like my belongings staying in tiptop newly perfect condition to larger things like achieving success as a way of perfectionism. I was in an orphanage, not a detention center, and I still expressed concern about being taken away if I wasn’t good enough. Wouldn’t it be logical for reunited children to fear that behavioral misconduct would send them back to these “tent villages,” especially when the staff there use the children’s behavior as leverage for if they can be with their families?

Living in one of these detention centers I imagine has some parallels to institutional life in that not all of the children’s needs can be met at all times. In order to keep some kind of organization, schedules are created and meal times are set despite what time of day is is when a child becomes hungry. There are lasting impacts for children who have lived in food insecurity, and these children often develop abnormal behaviors around food, including overeating, under-eating, hoarding and hiding food. When I first came to my parents, I didn’t eat at meals until they explicitly told me it was okay to eat. This was probably a learned behavior from living in the orphanage. For me, the idea of sharing my food with friends when I was young was extremely difficult, even though my mother would reassure me that we could go to the store and get more, and I would (and still) get very emotional if my dad ate food that I thought was mine. And though this isn’t a debilitating fear, it still has an influence on my relationship with food today. I regularly experience a passing thought when I look in the refrigerator and see food, and I think to myself, “oh good, I won’t go hungry this week.” This is clearly illogical, because as a working woman with a regular job, I know that I can go to the grocery store at any time, but this goes to show how permanent the effects of trauma are on a person.

It disgusts me and hits me deep in the core that the government of this country is intentionally and unnecessarily creating turmoil in all of these children’s lives and trauma that will have lasting scars for these young people. I read an article that revealed that Bethany Christian Services has already placed nearly 100 of these children in foster families. There are major concerns about what Bethany Christian Services is doing here and how they are profiting off of these separated and vulnerable youth. We need to live in an adoption accepting, not adoption promoting society. One risk is that the sooner adoption agencies swoop in on the current situation, serious reunification efforts for these children and their families could be made minimal. I fear that we are watching the next generation of adoptees being created. And as these children become adoptees, a whole new set of traumas will enter their lives – the dissociation of body and self felt by many adoptees, the cultural and familial splits, the questions of dating and forming romantic attachments for teen and young adult adoptees, the regular racism and slurs and shouts to go back to their countries the children will experience by the mouths of the very people who agreed with policies that detained and kept them here in the first place.

I know firsthand how it feels to be a part of a culture and country that has created policies that separate children from their families. And this move has had reverberations for the overseas Chinese adoptees, including just some of the symptoms of trauma I described throughout this piece. Further, the unnecessary One Child Policy has had devastating and unforeseen impacts on China as a country, too, including the gender imbalance leaving millions of men wifeless, which has led to an increase of bride trafficking in China, the 4-2-1 phenomenon that has children in the quandary of raising their own families while having to be caregivers for up to six elders, and the shortage of young people to replace the retiring group exiting the workforce has all of China’s economic progress over the last fifty years in question.

What the United States needs to ask itself right now is, what does it mean when a country uses children as a political tool? And the American people need to ask themselves how much hurt we will let happen and how far we are willing to go with with the current government’s heinous policies? Just because a policy is legal does not make it ethical, as was in the cases of slavery, segregation, Japanese internment, and the removal of Native children from their families. If our government will not protect children and families, we must stand up and say that we will. If our government decries human rights as unnecessary, we must continue to stand up against abuses of human rights. Our government is committing mass child abuse right now, and we are complicit if we allow this to continue without protesting and resisting to bring it to an end.

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6 responses to “The Trauma of Familial Separation

  1. Well said. Thank you for your analysis and call to action. There’s no need to create another generation of traumatized adoptees when reunification is possible. Unaccompanied minors are another story. For them, we can ask, How can I be a better ally? What advocacy needs do you have? How can I support your independence? Those sorts of questions, rather than rushing to feed them into the adoption and foster care industries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Placing children out of their families is an American tradition – Harlow's Monkey·

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