The long history of separating families in the US and how the trauma lingers

There are two ways to enter the United States, legally or illegally. Entering the country illegally is a crime. If I commit an illegal act, no matter how well intentioned my actions are, I will be subject to arrest. If I am arrested with small children, I would have no reasonable expectation of not being separated from my my children.

Yes, many laws are unfair. Black people in the U.S. have been subject to walking and driving while black, and other while black actions have been criminalized including most recently, barbecuing and StarBucking while black. It is almost universally recognized that when you are arrested, even if you're arrested unfairly, your children will be separated from you while under arrest.

The worst example of forced child separation occurs within our criminal justice system. Just as the forced removal of Indian children became illegal in the late '70s, the United States began an accelerated process of mass incarceration that quintupled the number of U.S. prisoners. 

Many people spend weeks, months and even years locked up while they await trial, half a million of the 2.3 million people behind bars are simply there because they are too poor to pay bail  (even though we know that money bail only marginally impacts court attendance). Many of these mostly nonviolent people end up losing their jobs, homes or custody of their children before they’ve even had a chance to plead their case in court. 


By Jessica Pryce, Florida State University

During the last few weeks, hundreds of families have been separated, following the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigrants. Even though the separations have reportedly stopped, it is not clear when the families will be unified. There are also reports of children being possibly put in foster homes and at least one teenager missing, after walking out of a shelter.

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Immigrant children play inside the Catholic Charities RGV in Texas. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

This is not the first time that children have been separated. Exclusion and separation has impacted African-Americans during slavery, Native Americans during the Trail of Tears, and Japanese-Americans during internment, to name a few.

As a scholar who is actively engaged in child protection research and who examines the unnecessary removals of children from their parents, I am all too aware that the repercussions of such policies often take a lifetime to undo.

History of separating families

During the years of slavery, there was daily buying and selling of children from their enslaved parents. No legal restraints existed on slave owners, who chose to dispose of their property as they saw fit.

Another period of state-sanctioned separations was in the 1800s, after President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act. Native Americans, mostly youth, were forcibly taken out of their homes and communities and asked to walk for miles to a specially designated “Indian territory.” Thousands died on that journey. It has since been named the “Trail of Tears.”

The government, nonetheless went ahead with its policies and mandated that Native American children be educated apart from their families in boarding schools. This was a method of creating a distance between children and their Native American parents so that they would slowly let go of their native values – what scholars today describe as forced assimilation.

This practice went on until the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 when Native American parents were given the legal right to refuse boarding school education.

The internment of Japanese-Americans was also a time of enactment of exclusionary policies by the American government. President Roosevelt ordered that Japanese, many of them United States citizens, be forcibly removed and held in camps. Children, even infants, were placed in these camps with their parents, and sometimes without.

As is being done today, these separations were staunchly defended and rationalized, without much consideration of the negative and long-lasting trauma.

The long-term impact

Recent research on the impact of family separation during slavery focuses on the trauma that has been passed down over the years.

Scholar Joy DeGruy, in her seminal book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” describes the impact of that history on black families today.

It is “common sense,” adds DeGruy, who has spent many years researching the multigenerational trauma, that hundreds of people who endured slavery would continue to pass on behaviors, such as anger, violence and shame, down to contemporary generations.

Scholars have also researched the impact of American Indian boarding schools. Their findings included reports of abuse in boarding school and how that manifested in their later years. As children, they were found to have high levels of depression. Research has also linked the adverse childhood experience of boarding school with difficulty in managing stress as adults.

Within the foster care system, scholars have long researched the harm in multiple placements, meaning moving children from one foster care placement to another. Children who experience such unstable placement experience, after being separated from their families, suffer from profound distress and a loss of belonging.

The trauma of separation leaves deep physical and psychological impact that carries into adulthood. This essentially means the healthy development of a child is disrupted in many ways.

Separation of families in 2018

The consequences of adverse childhood experiences can be minimized if a child is in a loving and nurturing environment where they feel safe and are able to acquire appropriate ways to cope.

The ConversationThese past comparisons bring us to what is occurring today. President Trump’s executive order has stopped any additional separations, but it does not undo the damage that has already been set in motion.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Jessica Pryce, Executive Director, The Florida Institute for Child Welfare, Florida State University

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