inviolate adjective 1. free from violation, injury, or disturbance; 2. kept sacred or unbroken (Collins English Dictionary)
As people of faith, one of our most compelling acts of devotion is to hold inviolate the protection of children – all children. Most people of faith are deeply disturbed about the serious, long-term trauma caused by our government’s forcible separation of children from their parents at our borders. Most would agree that these actions constitute a severe breach of all that is just and right.
But we must go a step further by owning at least a part of this national shame and by being willing to name our government’s role in this crisis as perpetrators of child abuse. The family separations, the result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, appear to have been done, not with sensitivity and a specific plan for reunification, but rather with arbitrary, harsh and deliberate actions that have struck terror in young children and horror for their parents. Do not doubt for one moment that such separations have caused severe and persistent trauma in these innocent children.
Images from news media have told the disgraceful story. We watched some of the youngest children cry in fear because they did not recognize their mothers after months of separation. We watched a one-year-old Honduran baby taken into a Phoenix, Arizona, courtroom without a parent, forced to go before a judge alone. According to the Huffington Post, Johan was separated from his dad at the border and later found himself in a daunting courtroom where there were no booster seats, no comfort items, no teddy bears. As of this writing, Johan was one of more than 2,500 migrant children who remained in federal custody.
“We must acknowledge that the children at our borders – young children and adolescents – have experienced unspeakable levels of complex trauma.”
Given the trauma many faced in their home country and the terror of being separated from a parent, the expectation that these young children could appear alone in court is unconscionable. Dr. Benard Dreyer, director of the division of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, called the situation “grossly inappropriate,” adding, “I’m ashamed that we’re doing this.”
I have spent hundreds of hours in courtrooms advocating for children and have never, not even once, experienced the scene of a toddler “testifying.” Expecting young children to navigate a court proceeding alone is developmentally inappropriate and emotionally damaging. While children may be struggling to verbalize a response to a judge’s question, their psyche is taking a traumatic blow that may well be permanent. Inflicting trauma on very young children is a serious breach of all that is right.
Because infants, toddlers and young children cannot speak or may not be able to verbalize their reactions to threatening events, some people may assume that young age protects these children from the impact of trauma. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the leadership at the borders is working, under court order, to reunite the youngest children with their families, the damage has already been done and, in many cases cannot be undone. Trauma is like that: swift, damaging, relentless, long-lasting.
We must acknowledge that the children at our borders – young children and adolescents – have experienced unspeakable levels of complex trauma, defined by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network as being exposed to “multiple traumatic events – often of an invasive, interpersonal nature that have wide-ranging, long-term effects.” These children left the only home they knew, often making a harrowing, 2,000-mile trip on foot, were pulled from the arms of their parents, traumatized by isolation from them, and cared for by strangers who could not speak their language and were not allowed to touch them.
Still, the importance of the “facts” of this situation pale in comparison to the extreme levels of trauma the children have experienced. People of faith should understand several important principles about childhood trauma:
- The relationship with a parent or primary caregiver is critical to a child’s sense of self, safety, trust and ability to thrive.
- Separation from parents is one of the most damaging traumatic stressors a child can experience, especially under frightening or chaotic circumstances.
- Such separations may increase a child’s risk for developing depression, anxiety or separation-related post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (“traumatic separation”).
- For young children, separation from their primary attachment figure affects their emotional and physical wellbeing in several ways, including the inability to trust, feel safe or develop foundations for meaningful relationships.
- Separated children may feel frightened and confused, refuse to speak, feel anxious and depressed, be unable to sleep or eat, have frightening thoughts and nightmares, and worry constantly about their own safety and the safety of their parent(s). They may blame themselves for what has happened.
- For older children, trauma triggers disequilibrium in the brain’s chemistry that often manifests in behaviors such as depression, withdrawal, regression, excessive fear, self-blame, hopelessness and self-harm; and on the other end of the spectrum, anger, aggression, uncontrollable negative behaviors and violence.
- Separation triggers a fear response in children that may affect them cognitively, emotionally and physiologically for the rest of their lives.
We have to be honest about the harm done to the children at our borders and understand such harm in light of our knowledge about children’s health and wellbeing and how strongly the Scripture speaks to the mandate of protecting children. The book of Isaiah presents many images of children, called “orphans” or “the fatherless.” The message is clear: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless . . .” (1:17). The failure of the people to “defend the cause of the fatherless” (1:23) is one of the reasons for Isaiah’s repeated warnings of divine judgement.
“Speak to members of Congress, demanding that we not only rectify the wrong our government has done, but that we also give tangible support through reparations to aid in the long-term response to the trauma we inflicted.”
Jaqueline E. Lapsley, in her provocative chapter in The Child in the Bible, suggests that the failure of the people as portrayed in Isaiah is not merely a failure of charity, but a failure of justice at the systemic level. Walter Brueggemann, writing in the same book, agrees that protecting children is a fundamental justice issue in the message of Isaiah. It is a “profound obligation . . . that depends not simply on good intentions, but on well-funded provisions of protection and sustenance.”
In God’s heart, we will always find a place for the protection of children. As God’s people, we should ask ourselves several questions. How do we hold the protection of children inviolable? What are specific actions we might take to minimize the irreparable harm that has been done to the children and parents who came to our land for refuge? In what ways might our faith communities raise voices of protest and protection?
I certainly do not have definitive answers for all of these questions. But I do know that the God who created all of us and each of us – children in our own country and children from other lands – dispatches us to the borders of suffering and calls us to the places of despair. How might we offer a ministry of compassionate presence? How might we act in ways that create good and positive change? Here are a few starting points:
- Speak to members of Congress, demanding that we not only rectify the wrong our government has done, but that we also give tangible support through reparations to aid in the long-term response to the trauma we inflicted.
- Work to heal divisions in our own communities, engaging in productive conversations designed to solve problems and embrace diversity.
- Open our own doors and the doors of our faith communities to the sojourner in search of refuge.
- Teach our children to love and respect all people.
- Train persons in our faith communities to recognize the symptoms of trauma and to respond with sensitivity and competence.
- Resolve that we will hold the protection of children inviolate.
In the final analysis, our faith confronts us with the mandate of helping create a world of kindness and hospitality. Our sense of what is right confronts us with the moral imperative to stand directly and persistently on lines of division and use all of our love to create oneness. Our heart confronts us with the most critical mission of all: holding the protection of children inviolate. That means keeping children sacred and unbroken.
It means knowing the heart of God and making God’s heart our heart.