By Kaisha Young, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Phyllis Gould remembers the “anguished” look on the child’s face as the judge announced that his father and step-mother were being deported back to Mexico. “His little eyes just darted around the room…trying to make sense of it,” she says. “Of course, he couldn’t though. What was happening was beyond his understanding.”

Gould works with immigration attorneys across the country and is tasked with writing reports for deportation and asylum cases that prove people are facing extreme hardship. During the course of her work, she interacts with children whom she says are caught in the middle.

“The toll it takes on [immigrant children] is palpable,” she says.

Gould also has a background in counseling and will sometimes do mental evaluations of immigrant children for her case reports. She says any prior trauma immigrant children experienced can exacerbate the distress family separation causes. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that traumatic events are cumulative, which only heightens the damage caused by the separation.

The child who watched his father and step-mother get deported back to Mexico was no stranger to trauma. Years earlier, he’d watched his biological mother collapse and die right in front of him. His father eventually married another woman whom the child grew quite fond of. “He called this woman ‘mom,’” Gould says. “That’s why losing her cut so deep for him, I think. It was as if he was losing his mother all over again.”

Research shows that family separation affects immigrant children on a neurobiological level. Prolonged trauma can physically change the architecture of children’s brains because they are not fully developed yet. Toxic stress — which psychologists say can include mental or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, exposure to violence and/or the aggregation of family economic misfortune — puts children’s brains in constant fight-or-flight mode.

This can lead to a diminished responsiveness of their brains’ neurotransmitters. The synaptic connections that would normally form in support of love, laughter and playing are weakened while the connections surrounding fear, aggression and anxiety are strengthened. According to the American Psychological Association, these changes are irreversible.

There is one consequence of family separation that particularly worries her. “When I look at those kids, I can’t help but wonder how the trauma of [family separation] will trickle down and skew their capacity to…learn,” she says. “Everything is interlaced, so there’s no doubt that it affects that part of their lives too.”

Separation from a parent induces stress hormones, which can rapidly course through a child’s small body, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child reported that the corticotropin-releasing hormone can damage the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that plays an important role in memory and learning.

Father and son receive English tutoring at Hyde Park Refugee Project. (Photo courtesy of Hyde Park Refugee Project)

Dianne Rudall has seen firsthand how family separation can disrupt a child’s educational development. Rudall is a tutor at the Hyde Park Refugee Project, which is an offshoot of RefugeeOne. Of all the children she’s worked with during her time at the non-profit, she says one “made the tragedy of family separation painfully and indelibly clear” to her.

Rudall had been assigned to work with a Honduran family that had been separated for a period of time upon entry to the U.S. She was instructed to work closely with the little girl in the family. When she first met the girl, Rudall says she seemed very detached. “I could sense a lot of fear and distrust,” Rudall recalls. “She wasn’t bouncy and energetic like other kids her age. She was just…solemn.”

During the weeks that followed, Rudall worked with the girl on the alphabet. Rudall had initially created a lesson plan on reading, but quickly realized the girl didn’t understand the fundamentals. “I would draw the letters on the whiteboard and ask her to draw them too, but she couldn’t,” Rudall says.

When the girl could not draw the letters, Rudall says the child would completely shut down. “She would act very withdrawn and nothing I said or did could pull her out of it,” Rudall says.  The two spent months trying to master the alphabet, but only made it to “H” before the girl’s family was transferred to another organization.

“I understand that children learn at their own pace, but something about that situation seemed different to me,” says Rudall. “I could feel how desperately she wanted to grasp the material, but there was some kind of… cognitive disconnect the separation probably caused that held her back.”

After her cases close, Gould has no idea what happens to the children who were caught in the middle of them, but she has a few guesses.

“Life as they knew it gets obliterated,” she says. “They can try to pick up the pieces, but I don’t think they’ll ever fully recover or be able to undo the harm that was done to them.”