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23andMe plans to send DNA kits to try to reunite families separated at the border — but privacy issues loom

23andMe plans to send DNA kits to try to reunite families separated at the border — but privacy issues loom

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John Moore/Getty Images
  • On Thursday, congressional representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) talked to 23andMe about possibility of using genetic testing to help reunite families separated at the border.
  • The next day, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki tweeted that the company had offered to “donate kits and resources to do the genetic testing to help reconnect children with their parents.”
  • A 23andMe representative told Business Insider on Friday that the company is currently working on a plan, but details have not yet been finalized.
  • There are several issues with tracking down family members via DNA testing, most of which involve privacy concerns.

The Trump administration has vowed to reunite the more than 2,300 migrant children and parents who’ve been forcibly separated as the result of the “zero-tolerance” policy enacted by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice.

But the logistical challenges of bringing families back together are only beginning to emerge. Because the cases of parents and children have been handled by separate agencies – and some parents have already been deported – reuniting kids with their parents is a dauntingly difficult and complex task.

Members of Congress are searching for potential solutions. On Thursday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) talked to 23andMe about the possibility of using genetic testing to help reunite families, BuzzFeed News reported.

The next day, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki tweeted that the company had offered to donate some of its spit-in-a-tube DNA-testing kits, along with “resources to do the genetic testing,” to help families reconnect.

A 23andMe representative confirmed to Business Insider that the company is working on a plan for this, although “program details haven’t been finalized.”

To use DNA testing for this purpose, people would have to carefully collect spit samples, then send them to a certified lab to be tested and submitted to 23andMe’s database. It’s unclear what would happen after that, or what a system that uses genetic data to match these separated families might look like.

“We are waiting to see the best way to follow up and make it happen,” Wojcicki wrote in her tweet.

Consumer genetics tests like 23andMe's require you to submit samples of saliva.

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Consumer genetics tests like 23andMe’s require you to submit samples of saliva.
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Hollis Johnson

Some experts have criticized the effort as unnecessary, however, suggesting that spreadsheets and photographs might be easier tools to accomplish the same goal.

“I find it astounding – astounding – that these families would have been separated in such a way that DNA would be required to reunite them,” Tom May, a professor of bioethics at the Hudson Alpha Insitute for Biotechnology, told Business Insider.

If genetics tests do wind up being used for this purpose, consumer privacy concerns may arise.

Once genetic data has been submitted to a database like those kept by 23andMe, Ancestry, or one of the other myriad companies providing these services, it is difficult and in some cases virtually impossible to delete. Some experts fear the data can be hacked, used in a discriminatory manner by insurance companies or employers, or used to locate other family members without their consent.

That is one of privacy experts’ main concerns about genetic data in general: that people beyond the individuals who choose to do a genetic test could be affected by its results. In the case of the Golden State Killer, for example, the suspect was tracked down using samples that a relative submitted to public genealogy database GEDmatch.

“You might be informed about the risks of doing a test like this, but other people might not,” May said.

Importantly, 23andMe is a private database, not a public one like GEDmatch. But private data was hacked last month at DNA testing and genealogy site MyHeritage, compromising the data of 92 million users.

May said that although he believes 23andMe’s offer to help unite families is well-intentioned, he hopes some ground rules will be established before the company gets involved.

“I think it would behoove [them] to supplement their good intentions by taking steps to make sure this travesty is not being used as a surreptitious way for authorities to enter individuals’ genetic information into a law-enforcement database,” May said. “I hope, therefore, that it is 23andMe’s intention to destroy this information after its use for this discrete purpose of reunification, and refuse to enter this into a database.”

Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face.

Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face.

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.

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Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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John Moore/Getty Images

More than 2,300 children have been forcibly separated from their parents as the result of a “zero-tolerance” policy enacted by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice over the past weeks.

Announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the policy calls for the prosecution of anyone who attempts to cross the border illegally. Since children aren’t being prosecuted but their parents are, families have been separated, with adult cases handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and children handled by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Facing widespread public backlash, President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that called for detaining families together.

But it’s unclear what will happen to the families that have already been broken up. After news reports that there was no plan in place to reunite children and parents, Trump said on Thursday that he’d directed agencies to reunite families. Yet attorneys have said that in many cases, no one is sure where children were sent, making a reunion difficult and complicated.

In the separation cases that have already happened, children as young as 8 months old have been sent to foster care systems. Reporters have described some shelters at the border as prison-like. Parents have said their children were torn away from them while breastfeeding or taken away for a bath then never returned.

Groups of pediatricians and mental-health experts have said that the trauma of these separations could cause irreversible lifelong damage. Researchers have identified many of the ways that family separation and detention can affect children. We’ve listed the primary findings of that research below, drawing from previous reporting on the topic and a Twitter thread from Dr. Aaron Carroll, a researcher, author, and pediatrician.


Detaining children and separating families can lead people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border on June 12, 2018.
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John Moore/Getty

The experience of being detained increases risks for PTSD for anyone.

In a systematic review of research on detained asylum seekers – including children, adolescents, and adults – researchers found that detention was linked to high rates of PTSD. These rates varied, but grew more severe the longer individuals were detained.

The detainees in these studies were not generally forcibly separated from families. But the trauma of family separation further increases PTSD risk, according to the American Academy of Pediatric, since kids become more vulnerable to stress and trauma without their caregiver.

Plus, by the time many of the kids who reach the border end up in the hands of the Border Patrol or the Office of Refugee Resettlement, many have already experienced trauma.

Jodi Berger Cardoso, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston, has researched the mental health of unaccompanied child migrants (who had not been forcibly separated from parents). She found that those kids had experienced an average of eight traumatic life events – a clinical category that includes experiences like kidnapping, sexual assault, and witnessing violent crimes. About 60% of those kids met the criteria for PTSD and 30% for depressive disorder.


Detention and family separation also raise the risk of anxiety and depression.

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Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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John Moore/Getty

Dr. Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told Business Insider that the removal of a caregiver can create acute distress that harms a child’s ability to cope and self-soothe, which can lead to depression and anxiety.

Detainment can also have this effect. In the aforementioned review of studies on detained asylum seekers, one study found that rates of depression and anxiety both exceeded 75%. Another study of asylum seekers of all ages in the US found that the longer someone remained in detention, the higher their rates of depression and anxiety.

That risk can be exacerbated when the experience of detention is especially traumatic. The nonprofit investigative journalism organization Reveal recently reported that in facilities where kids from the border have been held, children have been sexually assaulted, forcibly administered psychotropic drugs, had medical issues left untreated, and more. Most mental health conditions have their roots in childhood, meaning that these traumas could have life-long impacts.

Adult members of detained family units also report high levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and self-harm, since “[d]etention itself undermines parental authority and capacity to respond to their children’s needs,” according to an extensive analysis of research by the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Keeping kids away from their parents can harm their developing brains.

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A police officer and a US Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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John Moore/Getty Images

Fortuna said the depression, anxiety, and PTSD that children experience when they are separated from caretakers can be especially harmful to vulnerable developing brains.

“What we find from a neurobiological sense is that the circuitry in the brain that is a fear response can be actually harmed,” Fortuna said. In other words, the parts of the brain that manage fear responses – the amygdala and hippocampus -develop differently in traumatized children.

That can alter their emotional experiences for the rest of their lives, Fortuna explained, which raises risks for a variety of mental health problems as they get older.

Experts say that even a temporary separation can permanently transform these parts of the brain.

For that reason, Fortuna wrote in an amicus brief for an ACLU case that family separation can cause “irreversible harm” for children.


The trauma of separation and detention raise risks of self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Jail-like detention can trigger “self-harm, suicidal ideation, [and] suicide attempts,” according to Laurie Heffron, an assistant professor of social work at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. Heffron works with immigrants and women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.

In several studies included in the previously mentioned review of research on detained young asylum seekers, suicidal ideation became common in more than half of the children and adolescents studied. Between a quarter and a third of children and adults who had never previously engaged in self harm began to do so, the studies found.

Much of this research doesn’t account for the additional trauma of forced family separation on top of detention, but it indicates that detention itself is harmful.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a statement Wednesday addressing the lasting consequences of the family separation policy.

“Most mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence, and childhood trauma has emerged as a strong risk factor for later suicidal behavior,” the statement said.


Research indicates that detention of families and asylum seekers will raise already high levels of psychological disturbance and psychopathology.

A study of refugee children in Britain found that asylum seekers had more than triple the average level of psychological disturbance, which means they’d been exposed to trauma and had trouble with emotional or behavioral regulation.

An Australian study of child and adult asylum seekers found “very high levels of psychopathology,” a term for mental disorders. This trend was “attributable to traumatic experiences in detention and, for children, the impact of indefinite detention on their caregivers,” the study authors wrote.

“What we know about folks who’ve experienced trauma is they need to feel safe,” Heffron told Business Insider. “Currently we’re doing the opposite of that. Not only are people not feeling safe emotionally because they’re separated from their families, they’re oftentimes not feeling safe physically because of the conditions of detention.”


The effects of this significant trauma may ripple through to future generations.

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Central American asylum seekers wait as US Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
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Getty Images/John Moore

“Historically when things have happened like this – from the literature – when you have this accumulation of trauma and you break up families, you have a direct negative impact on the children, the caregivers, and potentially intergenerational bad effects,” Fortuna said.

Researchers have linked the experience of Native Americans who were pressured to relocate away from tribes and family groups in the 1950s to problems with substance abuse and depression. Depression and juvenile behavior issues persisted through the next generation as well.

In Australia, as many as 100,000 children from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were removed from their families from the late 1800s through 1960s and placed with white families or in government institutions to assimilate them into majority culture. Data shows that people who were forcibly separated from their families as children were almost twice as likely to be charged with a crime as adults, 60% more likely to have alcohol use disorders, and more than twice as likely to have gambling problems.

Surveys found that the children of people who’d been separated from their parents in Australia had more than double the average risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties.


Because of these alarming risks (and others), a number of scientific institutions have come out against family-separation policies.

Regardless of what happens next, the trauma of the family separations that already happened will continue to affect kids and families. So warnings from scientific associations about these policies are still urgent.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “these family separations jeopardize the short- and long-term health and well-being of the children involved.”

The Academies’ statement went on to cite “a body of scientific evidence that underscores the potential for lifelong, harmful consequences for these children and based on human rights considerations.”

Similar condemnations were issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the United Nations human rights office.

“The administration’s policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers,” the American Psychological Association said.


Despite Trump’s recent order, there are still many questions about what will happen to families at the border.

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A tent city constructed to hold immigrants near the border.
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Reuters/Mike Blake

Family separation hasn’t fully ended until the more than 2,300 children who’ve been separated from their parents are reunited with their families. Once that process starts, children have to be found and connected to parents, some who have already been deported. That could take a while.

Another complication is that the new executive order says the Trump administration will detain families together “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources,” but many immigration lawyers say that wording leaves the door open for continued family separation.

Plus, as of Thursday, there are still major questions about the status of the zero-tolerance policy. If it is still in effect, experts are unsure if Trump’s recent executive order will stand.

According to a 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement, the government cannot keep children in detention for longer than 20 days. Trump’s new order directs Sessions to find a way to amend the Flores settlement and detain families together indefinitely, essentially creating internment camps. So it’s possible that a court could reverse this order. That would mean family separation could resume, unless the zero-tolerance policy is reversed or Congress settles on some sort of immigration reform package.

Separating kids from parents at the border mirrors a ‘textbook strategy’ of domestic abuse, experts say — and causes irreversible, lifelong damage

Separating kids from parents at the border mirrors a ‘textbook strategy’ of domestic abuse, experts say — and causes irreversible, lifelong damage

A four-year-old boy weeps in the arms of a family member as he and others were apprehended by border patrol agents after illegally crossing into the US from Mexico near McAllen, Texas, May 2, 2018.

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A four-year-old boy weeps in the arms of a family member as he and others were apprehended by border patrol agents after illegally crossing into the US from Mexico near McAllen, Texas, May 2, 2018.
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Reuters/Adrees Latif
  • Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, everyone who attempts to cross the border – even those seeking asylum – are being prosecuted.
  • Because of the way that policy is enforced, almost 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in six weeks.
  • Experts, mental health groups, and human rights organizations all say this could cause serious, lasting harm to children and their parents.
  • Here’s how forced family separation affects people for the rest of their lives.

Babies ripped from parents’ arms. Tent cities. Mass trials. Suicides. Reports about what’s happening to children and families who arrive at the US-Mexico border have shocked many, from White House reporters to conservative religious leaders.

A Honduran woman told attorneys that her daughter was pulled from her as she was breastfeeding. After being separated from his wife and 3-year-old son, a Honduran man took his own life in a Texas jail cell.

Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy for Pediatrics, recently described seeing a blotchy-faced toddler sobbing and pounding on a playmat, terrified because she’d been forcibly separated from her mother.

“We knew what was wrong, but we were powerless to help,” Kraft wrote.

At issue in these accounts is a policy enacted by the US Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions has described as “zero tolerance.”

US authorities are now detaining and prosecuting anyone who attempts to cross the border illegally – even those seeking asylum because they’re fleeing violence, some of whom are being blocked from reaching official ports of entry. Within families, the parents are charged with a crime but children are not, which leads them to be separated. Almost 2,000 children were taken from their families between April 19 and May 31 as a result of the policy. In some cases, the kids are too young to speak.

Sessions described this policy as a deterrent. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said in a speech to law-enforcement officials in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

But this policy could cause irreversible harm and psychological damage for the rest of people’s lives, according to experts. Some consequences could even be passed on to future generations.

Forced family separation has been condemned as harmful, inhumane, and counter to accepted human rights by many groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, and the United Nations human rights office.

“The administration’s policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers,” the American Psychological Association said in a statement.

Supplies are stored at a Brownsville shelter where child migrants are kept.

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Supplies are stored at a Brownsville shelter where child migrants are kept.
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Administration for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services

‘A problem of the government’s own making’

There are more than 10,000 unaccompanied children in US facilities and detention centers right now; some have been separated from their parents, while others arrived at the border alone. But Sessions’ zero-tolerance approach means that for the first time, an official policy calls for the splitting of families. According Homeland Security numbers obtained by The Associated Press, officials had separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults by the end of May.

By now, more than 2,000 kids – likely freshly traumatized – have probably been added to the US’ already overwhelmed system for dealing with young immigrants.

A mural depicting President Trump in the detention shelter in Brownsville, Texas

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A mural depicting President Trump in the detention shelter in Brownsville, Texas
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Administration for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services

Almost 1,500 boys between the ages of 10 and 17 have been crammed into one shelter inside a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. Jacob Soboroff, a reporter who visited that facility, described the boys as “incarcerated” because they were eating in shifts, had just 40 square feet of living space, and spent only two hours outside each day. The Trump administration is currently building “tent cities” near the border to hold the many undocumented kids who arrive in the US.

“Before, their cases would have been dealt with as a family,” Megan McKenna, senior director of communications at the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), told Business Insider. “It’s a problem of the government’s own making.”

This isn’t the first time families have been separated at the border. But now, doing so is the rule, not the exception. After families are separated, parents get dealt with by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as they are being charged with a crime. Since the children are not charged, their cases get managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In many cases, families who get separated aren’t given any information about where other family members are being held or how to contact each other.

“They just have no understanding of what’s happening to them or when they’re going to see their family again, and we can’t tell them when they’re going to see their parents again because we don’t know either,” said McKenna, whose organization tries to match children with attorneys. “It’s extraordinarily damaging to the child.”

‘Irreversible harm’

Jodi Berger Cardoso, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston, researches the effects of trauma on immigrants and their children.

“What they are doing to these children and parents is inhumane,” Cardoso told Business Insider. “If we just look at the research evidence, anyone can see that these tactics will have long-term consequences for children and families.”

Dr. Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told Business Insider that “in situations of stress, the only way that children can cope is if they have a caregiver with them that’s taking care of them and that’s there to protect them.”

The removal of a caregiver can create acute distress that harms a child’s ability to cope and self-soothe, which can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In vulnerable developing brains, that can be especially harmful.

A child traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America sits at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint.

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A child traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America sits at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint.
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Reuters/Edgard Garrido

“What we find from a neurobiological sense is that the circuitry in the brain that is a fear response can be actually harmed,” Fortuna said. In other words, the parts of the brain that manage fear responses – the amygdala and hippocampus -develop differently in traumatized children.

That can alter their emotional experiences for the rest of their lives, Fortuna explained, and put a child “at higher risk for ongoing anxiety, depression, PTSD as they get older.” Those factors, in turn, hurt their future educational outcomes and sense of well-being, and can cause behavioral problems. For that reason, Fortuna wrote in an amicus brief for an ACLU case that family separation can cause “irreversible harm” for children.

Even when kids are separated from parents in a non-forceful way, research suggests those children have a higher risk of anxiety and depression.

Lessons from families of the past: multi-generational damage

Previous times in history when families were separated have illustrated these long-lasting psychological consequences.

“Historically when things have happened like this – from the literature – when you have this accumulation of trauma and you break up families, you have a direct negative impact on the children, the caregivers, and potentially intergenerational bad effects,” Fortuna said.

The US and Canada have a long history of separating Native Americans from their families. Researchers have linked the experience of Native Americans who were pressured to relocate away from tribes and family groups in the 1950s to problems with substance abuse and depression. Depression and juvenile behavior issues even persisted through the next generation as well.

In Australia, as many as 100,000 children from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were removed from their families from the late 1800s through 1960s and placed with white families or in government institutions to assimilate them into majority culture. Data shows that people who were forcibly separated from their families as children experienced significant, long-lasting negative impacts: they were almost twice as likely to be charged with a crime as adults, 60% more likely to have alcohol use disorders, and more than twice as likely to have gambling problems.

Surveys found that even the children of people who’d been separated from their parents in Australia had more than double the average risk of emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America enter the United States border and customs facility, where they are expected to apply for asylum.

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Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America enter the United States border and customs facility, where they are expected to apply for asylum.
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Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Using children to control parents mirrors domestic abuse behavior

Laurie Heffron, an assistant professor of social work at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, works with immigrants and women who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.

She said that using children to manipulate adults’ decisions – as Sessions’ policy is intended to do – “is an eerie mirroring” of a “textbook strategy of people who abuse their partners.”

In domestic abuse situations, one partner often uses control of children as a way to “manipulate their partner, maintain control over their partner, or coerce their partner,” Heffron said. “Except now it’s children being manipulated and being used as pawns to control a whole community of people, a whole population of people who are trying to seek safety.”

This is particularly troubling for Heffron, since a central motivation for many of the immigrant women she’s worked with has been to find a safe place to raise their children, away from violence inside or outside their home.

Compounded trauma

In addition to the lasting negative impacts of family separation, immigrant families detained at the border face three other sources of trauma that can compound the psychological damage.

First, many of these families have already suffered hardship in their home countries, which is what caused them to leave.

“Children are being persecuted by gangs, either through forced recruitment, extortion, and or violence,” Cardoso said. “Women have a high risk for interpersonal violence that includes physical and sexual violence.”

Second, many immigrants encounter violence and trauma on the dangerous journey to the US.

“On top of whatever reason people have left their homeland… are migration-related experiences that may be oftentimes negative, which could include physical or sexual abuse or violence or exploitation or human trafficking,” Heffron said.

Cardoso found in her research of one group of unaccompanied children (who hadn’t been forcibly separated from parents) that those kids had experienced an average of eight traumatic life events – a clinical category that includes experiences like kidnapping, sexual assault, and witnessing violent crimes. About 60% of those kids met the criteria for PTSD and 30% for depressive disorder. The average age in that sample was 14.

And third, jail-like detention can trigger “self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, depression, traumatic stress, anxiety, et cetera,” according to Heffron.

“What we know about folks who’ve experienced trauma is they need to feel safe,” she said. “Currently we’re doing the opposite of that.Not only are people not feeling safe emotionally because they’re separated from their families, they’re oftentimes not feeling safe physically because of the conditions of detention. We also hear allegations and there are reports of physical maltreatment and sexual violence in immigrant detention centers.”

Are immigrants really being deterred?

As KIND has documented, the zero-tolerance policy is one of many aimed at making it harder for immigrant families to seek asylum in the US – and deter them from trying.

When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was asked by NPR whether taking children from their parents to deter immigration was cruel, he responded: “I wouldn’t put it quite that way … The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

The research contradicts Kelly’s claim that the children will be fine, and it’s also unclear whether this policy works as a deterrent. So far, reports from the border indicate that it isn’t deterring immigrants, since many experts say that people fleeing violence in their home countries are continuing to do so.

“We’ve heard from families that have said they would rather risk the plight of coming to the United States and possibly being detained than face sure harm or even death in their home countries,” McKenna said. “It’s a policy that’s just not going to be effective because it’s not addressing the core reasons of why these families and these children are coming to the United States. It’s just this pervasive violence that’s perpetrated by the gangs and narcotraffickers which control communities.”

Family separation also violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically states that “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will.”

“I think we should be a society that understands that we need to take care of children. If they come to our borders and they are families, we can’t harm them,” Fortuna said. “We have to deal with policy and immigration issues, I understand that, but it cannot be policy that harms people directly, intentionally.”

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