Sunday, December 11, 2022

Great news! Tearing children from their parents is sure to be “catastrophic” – but only when Donald Trump does it! (If a professor from Massachusetts is to be believed.)

We are supposed to believe that when HE does it, it's "catastrophic" ...

... but when SHE does it, well, that's different!

Back in 2018, when it was Donald Trump’s ICE agents tearing apart families, here’s how The Washington Post summarized the science concerning what happens “when children are forcibly separated from their parents.” 

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain. 

No one in the scientific community gave more dire warnings about the harm family separation does to children than Charles A. Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School.  Said Nelson: 

“The effect is catastrophic.  There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.” 

But somehow, for some reason, if the people forcibly separating children from their parents are caseworkers from his own state of Massachusetts then, really, Nelson tells us, it may not be so bad after all.  Nelson never does cite a study showing that infants and toddlers can tell the difference between an ICE agent and a caseworker for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, but hey, he’s a Harvard professor so he must know, right? 

Dr. Nelson’s double standards were showing when The Washington Post came back to him to comment on a harrowing case of wrongful removal in his own backyard.  

It’s the story of Josh Sabey, his wife Sarah Perkins, their three-year-old son Clarence and their 14-week-old son Cal.  Perkins rushed Cal to the ER when he awoke with a 103-degree fever.  The hospital discovered a healed fracture on Cal’s ribcage and rushed to assume – wrongly – that it was child abuse.  They let the family return home, but at 1:00 a.m. the next morning ICE agents – sorry, I mean DCF caseworkers and police pounded on their door, demanded entry, tore both children from their parents and took them into the night. 

From the Post story: 

When it became clear that they were not going to be able to keep their children at home, Sabey and Perkins began recording what was happening. Toward the end of the cellphone footage, the phone rests on a table as the parents retrieve their confused and disoriented children. “Clarence, you get to go on a car ride,” Perkins can be heard saying gently in the background. “I don’t want to,” he cries. There is the sound of the little boy screaming, and, later, his mother quietly sobbing. … It took more than 30 minutes to settle their hysterical 3-year-old into the back of a stranger’s car. 

Apparently only a Harvard professor can tell the difference between those cries and these, from children taken at the Mexican border: 

For the Perkins-Sabey children, the experience in foster care was probably the least awful it can be.  They were with strangers for “only” 16 hours, then placed with relatives. The parents had daily visits.  They were back home within four weeks, but the family remained under constant surveillance for months longer. 

Such gentle treatment is almost unheard of for the vast majority of children torn from their families, almost all of whom are poor, nonwhite or both.  The Perkins-Sabey family is white and middle-class. And to their enormous credit, they know what a difference that makes.  Here’s what they told NBC10 Boston, which was first to report the story: 

The couple is quick to point out their ordeal turned out better than many other removal situations, especially for minority and low-income parents. 

For one, their kids were placed with relatives after a brief stint in foster care, allowing them to regularly see Clarence and Cal. They also had the resources to hire an experienced attorney to navigate the complicated process. 

“There certainly needs to be a check and balance there,” Sabey said. “We’re going to try to change the system and improve things for other families that don’t necessarily have the social capital or network that we have.” 

And yet, as the Post reports, it still took a toll: 

Clarence … started waking unexpectedly at night, screaming in a pitch his parents had never heard before. He’d been fully potty-trained before he was taken from his parents, but after he was returned to them, he started having accidents. His parents noticed that this often happened immediately after the twice-weekly visits from DCF workers.

So now, let's see what Dr. Nelson has to say about all this.  He doesn’t dismiss the harm to these children entirely: 

Nelson says an unanticipated, middle-of-the-night removal is a particularly extreme event for a young child. 

But, of course, government agents pounding on the door and demanding to take away your children tends to be unanticipated.  And often it happens in the middle of the night

And yet, Nelson goes on to say, maybe it’s not so catastrophic: 

From the moment of separation, a number of variables will affect a long-term outcome for a child: For children who are put in unsupportive or unsafe foster care environments, who aren’t quickly reunited with their families, who do not receive the care they need for already-existing mental health issues, Nelson says, “that can lead to a terrible long-term outcome.” 

OK let’s stop right there.  Study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of stranger foster homes, and the record of group homes and institutions is even worse.  So you can imagine how many are merely “unsupportive.”  Only 4% of foster children leave foster care within 30 days – which itself is a very long time in the mind of a young child, and time enough, according to other researchers to cause plenty of trauma.  So Nelson is effectively saying that the majority of forced family separations “can lead to a terrible long-term outcome.” 

 In a worst-case scenario, he says, “the child isn’t just in one foster care placement, but the child goes from one to another to another — that, we know, is catastrophic.” 

Ah, so it’s only by placement #3 that things are catastrophic!  Well, that’s probably somewhere around half of all foster care cases.  

However … 

in a situation like the one experienced by the Sabey and Perkins family, Nelson says, he holds a more optimistic outlook for the children.[Nelson says] An infant might not register anything about the brief experience at all; 


That’s not what another distinguished Massachusetts doctor said – again, back when it was Donald Trump’s ICE agents doing the taking: 

From the time they are born, children emotionally attach to their caregiver and vice versa, said Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center [Emphasis added.] 

Now, back to Dr. Nelson when it’s Massachusetts DCF making the decisions: 

 a 3-year-old like Clarence might experience short-term behavioral changes that could subside over time. … With proper support, with a family with access to the resources they need, this should all be in the rear-view mirror on the part of the child in months,” he says. 

Clarence is, of course, getting that support – especially now that the family has moved to Idaho and DCF is out of their lives.  But the typical families caught in the family policing net are poor – that’s often why their children were taken in the first place.  How do they get “access to the resources they need”?  

And nearly 7,700 mental-health professionals and 142 organizations are not nearly so sanguine. Here’s what they said in a petition protesting the separations at the Mexican border: 

“To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma,” the petition reads. 

Why, then should we assume that when American family police agencies inflict the same wounds, they leave no shrapnel? 

It is true that every child will respond differently.  Some children and families have enormous reserves of resilience.  Indeed, that’s one of the many reasons doing things like turning in families to the family police based on questionnaires about “Adverse Childhood Experiences” is so dangerous. 

But why should that let DCF – or ICE – off the hook?  Is pain inflicted on a child OK as long as it doesn’t last forever?  Suppose a father said: “Sure, I broke my kid’s arm a few months ago to punish him, but I took him right to the doctor, he put it in a cast and now the arm is good as new.  It’s all in the rear-view mirror!” Would that father not be a child abuser?  When ICE or DCF do it, are they not child abusers whether the trauma lasts forever or not? 

All in the rear-view mirror?  That attitude toward the torment inflicted on a three-year-old boy is chilling. 

Nelson gives away what’s really at play here in what he says next: 

“But the parents — the parents are going to be traumatized. They’re going to be reviewing this episode forever.” 

And that doesn’t affect a child?  Really?  Well, then, clearly we should stop using taking away children because of parents’ “mental health” problems, since the learned professor now tells us, in effect, traumatizing parents forever doesn’t affect their children! 

The reason Nelson is so hellbent on contradicting himself is apparent in something else he said.  He is terrified that pointing out how catastrophic it is to tear children from their families will stop agencies like DCF from tearing children from – well, you know, those people:  The Black people Brown people and poor white people who are their usual targets. 

Maintaining the fiction that only parents suffer “forever” then their children are torn from them is the lynchpin of the Big Lie of American child welfare, the idea that any attempt to curb the massive, unchecked power of family policing agencies is putting “parents' rights” ahead of “child safety.”  Or, as Nelson put it: 

“Where you set the bar is a really tough issue. Child protection has dealt with this forever. In Massachusetts, DCF has come under tremendous criticism because there have been times where they set the bar [for intervention] so high that kids were being grievously harmed by their parents,” he says. “On the other hand, if we set the bar very low, we perpetrate a different harm, which is separation. I think it needs to be on a case-by-case basis." 

Unfortunately, the Post story, which is quite good in many respects embraces this false framing. Here’s why it’s wrong: 

When you set the bar too low for family police intervention, you overload the system, deluging workers with so many false reports, trivial cases and poverty cases that they don’t have time to investigate any case properly.  That is almost always the reason for the tragedies that make headlines.  Consider Massachusetts: The state tears apart families at a rate 60% above the national average – a very low bar indeed --yet the tragedies keep right on happening. 

In contrast if you “set the bar … high” workers have more time to investigate and find those few children in real danger.  

Either way, some children in real danger will be missed.  But if you set the bar low you are likely to miss more such children.  Setting the bar low makes all children less safe. 

And, as Prof. Vivek Sankaran recently pointed out in a similar context,  when people who favor a take-the-child-and-run approach say “case by case basis” what they mean is: We decide based on our whims and prejudices. 

That doesn’t work when ICE does it, and it doesn’t work any better when a U.S. family police agency does it.