Separations: The ACE out in the open

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The word “separation” conjures up many emotions, often simultaneously, but rarely are they positive. It usually invokes some sense of loss or impurity. People can separate ideas from action, items from items, chemicals from chemicals, and people from other people — but they cannot separate cause from effect.

Right now, we’ve got a case where all of the above has come into play in a rude awakening for a nation that once prided itself on the balanced nature of its democratic republic, its fairness in giving every person and idea the time of day. But what happens when we fail to shut down ideas that have proven to be wrong throughout history? Such ideas have brought irrevocable harm, or have resulted in decades — even centuries — of failed policies and underlying tensions. Furthermore, not acknowledging our missteps further deepens the hole. If we cannot, as a united force, stand up against immoral actions, we cannot remedy them and move forward.

Children separated from their parents became a political issue this year. In allowing this to happen, we separated the ideas of this country from the actions we ought to take, we severed the associations that children make with parental stability and safety from the truth of what they encounter, and we altered the neurological states of other human beings with the unnecessary trauma that comes when those in power attempt to deny or ignore the effects of their actions.

For those who think that liberal media bias has blown this situation out of proportion, and for those who support this administration, there is no amicable way to relay this: In a culture that hesitates to state whether anything is objectively wrong or right, moral or immoral, there are legal, psychological and historical reasons why you are wrong on this particular issue — you will be on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps the real separation we need to discuss in this country is the separation of fact from fiction, because right now the line has blurred to a state of being near indistinguishable. Many ideas, both liberal and conservative, border on the ridiculous, the unproven, and the prejudiced.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions In San Diego, CA on May 7, 2018 announcing policy to separate families and put children into internment camps.

But this is not a matter for liberals and conservatives to hash out from a political standpoint; It is a moral crossroads, wherein we decide where we stand with each other, not where we stand in the voting booth.

Ideas regarding policy don’t mean more based on your citizenship and the fact that you haven’t died yet. Ideas have meaning when there is truth behind them, and truth is spoken with the only type of bias we ought to have: a bias towards the wellbeing of others.

Before we delve into more abstract concepts, let’s examine the facts — beginning with a timeline of events. (For a full timeline, check out this article by Aaron Hegarty of USA Today.)

Back in March, John Kelly informed CNN of the tentative plans for family separation at the border, as a deterrent for illegal crossings. According to a New York Timesarticle by Caitlin Dickerson, the start of those separations can be traced back to October 2017, where data from a division of DHS found at least 700 children taken from parents or caregivers, with roughly 1/7thof that group younger than 4 years old. Keep in mind, this is before it had become a “trending” topic for enraged Facebook users.

By April and May of this year, the nation had heard obscene justifications for these separations, including a reference to biblical scriptures by Jeff Sessions and an indignant claim by Sarah Huckabee Sanders that this was simply upholding the law.

Finally, on June 20th, the president made a statement to end this previously untouchable policy (as he had claimed earlier, while shifting responsibility away from himself) with an executive order drafted by Kirstjen Nielson.

By this time, thousands of children had been separated.

Now, with little having been done to promote future reunification at the time of those separations, not only is the process of any rectification going to be slow and painstaking — if not impossible — but the emotional damage far outweighs the resources we are likely to see our government extend toward a true healing process.

Just think: There was no centralized database with identification logs, no bracelets, no ID numbers when children were taken. The database used by the government is, essentially, useless in terms of collecting accurate information from children recently separated from their parents. These children are often too shocked, and in some cases, far too young, to provide adequate information to identify their parents. Both the Washington Post which discusses the term “deleted family units” and Business Insider discuss the upcoming challenges of even locating family members, reiterating that the intent of these separations had never been to reunite families or provide an avenue for legal citizenship. No, the intent had been to teach immigrants a lesson.

Interestingly, the same people who would defend these separations as upholding the law are forgetting a very hypocritical detail. If we expect someone in our country to abide by our laws, are we not also obligated to protect them to some extent according to our laws? For instance, our laws regarding sexual contact with those under 18 differ from those of other nations, as do the age limits for the consumption of alcohol. Our standards for what constitutes as domestic abuse also varies from that of other countries. However, if a U.S. citizen tried to engage in any of the above illegal activities with a traveler, we would hold them accountable, and vice versa if the traveler inflicted harm upon them. It is quite reasonable to apply laws that were created to reduce violence and destruction across the board, because our constitution actually states that we are “equal,” making no distinction in the value of life between the foreigner and the native-born.

That is the true danger of these barbaric separations. They were done withthe intent to harm people, to scare them into complying with strict border policies. But if we set this precedent for moral hypocrisy, have we not eradicated the very basis of decency and respect which a true justice system demands?

There were still be those who argue that childhood wounds are not the speller of doom, that resiliency can emerge from tragedy for the families affected by this ill-conceived policy, and these actions may mark a new era in the history of United States border control. To that, the response is twofold: You are both right and wrong.

Kids in cages on the border

Resilience, as psychological studies such as the ACE study have pointed out, only goes so far. Yes, children with “protective factors” can work through tremendous hardship to not only survive, but thrive. And yet those protective factors are (1) hard to come by, and (2) no guarantee that the scars of childhood won’t inflict permanent damage not just psychologically, but physiologically.

For those unfamiliar with the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), it has changed the way those in the mental health fields — and those in education — think about childhood maltreatment.

So far, the best book I’ve found on the subject is Childhood Disrupted, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. In it, she lays out scientific evidence, as well as compelling case studies and personal narratives, that prove conclusively the dangers of severely traumatic events in childhood.

Unlike the small or predictable changes in childhood, such as moving to a new school or losing a grandparent to age-related illness, Adverse Childhood Experiences are the events that rock your world … and your neurological and physiological wellbeing.

As Nakazawa puts it, they are “linked to a far greater likelihood of illness in adulthood” and are usually “scary, chronic, unpredictable stressors,” such as ongoing physical or psychological abuse, neglect, or upheavals such as family separation.

Her book is an excellent introductory read for those purely interested in the effects of such events, and there is additional information on how to calculate your ACE score found immediately following the Introduction.

But I digress.

The related point here is that we have just witnessed our government deliberately inflict this pain not upon foster children, who are uprooted from dysfunctional families in the hopes to improve their situation, but children from presumably loving families. And some psychologists are already making this connection. is a website that focuses primarily on information related to the ACE Study, incorporating any new research. Dr. Darcia Narvaez of the University of Notre Dame builds upon this idea for us, in her asserting that these government-sanctioned separations are, in fact, child abuse. While there are still no ideas for how to control the damage already done, we do know that we have an obligation to not let anything like this happen again. It’s not fake outrage that appears on social media; It’s a real phenomenon, and it cannot be political.

To those who, like Jeff Sessions, attempted to defend such practices under a religious guise of respect for authority, I would send a gentle reminder: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV).

For those not biblically inclined, there’s also that nagging voice in the back of your head that says, when watching children weep or withdraw on the nightly news programs, “This is wrong.”