The plight of thousands of migrant children separated from their parents has dominated recent media cycles, capturing the country’s outrage over a fundamental challenge to American values. Two recent articles in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The Suffering of Children” and “Housing Immigrant Children – The Inhumanity of Constant Illumination,” forcefully document the mental and physical harm inflicted on children, parents, and family members by the policies and procedures implemented by our government. In brief, the United States is systematically imposing toxic stress on people under its complete control. Though this issue is uniquely troubling in its overt cruelty, it’s important to remember that trauma from family separation is not just experienced by migrant and refugee families. In fact, it’s something a growing number of Americans have experienced through the rise of mass incarceration.
Common sense dictates (and voluminous research affirms) that families are a bedrock social institution at the heart of our collective well-being. Families are the building blocks for communities, the complex social structures essential for our health. They provide the means for neighbors to help neighbors, enabling us to support each other in times of need. Why, then, do we not develop laws, policies, and practices that reflect American values and reinforce, not undermine, the foundational importance of family? Why foment toxic stress that will take many years and untold tax dollars to address?
From 1980 to 2010 the U.S. prison population increased by over 500 percent. This rise was driven mainly by imprisonment for low-level drug crimes. The unprecedented expansion of our criminal justice system means that on any given day an estimated 2.7 million U.S. children have an incarcerated parent. Treating addiction and drug use primarily as a criminal activity, and not as a public health issue, resulted in massive resources devoted to criminal justice institutions. The consequences for our nation’s public health have been profoundly negative. The children, parents, and families disproportionately harmed by these laws, policies, and practices are people of color.
Many in the public health and medical community are familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study. The research, performed by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, is one of the largest studies into how childhood experiences affect health and well-being later in life. Of the many circumstances that lead to poor outcomes in adulthood, having a household member in prison was directly associated with substantial health disparities.
It is far past time that we, as a society, acknowledge the legacy of harm mass incarceration leaves in its wake. Beyond the moral imperative to address this issue, as a nation we all pay the price for the negative health consequences these families members experience downstream.
Knowing what we do about the tremendous harm inflicted on families and children that are forced to separate, it is indefensible that our government would systematically perpetrate this trauma on those at our borders. This is true whether the victims are migrants, refugees, or U.S. citizens.
Missouri Foundation for Health is no stranger to these issues. In collaboration with partners like the Incarnate Word Foundation and the Lutheran Foundation, we’ve invested in the Shut It Down project, which is striving to break the “school-to-prison pipeline” in St. Louis. We’ve supported Alive and Well STL, a group that is working to reduce the impact of toxic stress on long-term health. In addition, our partnerships with organizations such as Casa De Salud and the International Institute of Southwest Missouri underscore our commitment to the health of our immigrant communities, which have so much to offer our region.
We’re a country that cares about family values, and I can think of no more important way of acknowledging those values than by fighting to keep families together. After all, we’re not just working to protect children’s well-being today, but their health trajectories for the rest of their lives.