By Thom Senzee
The only reason a government should ever take children away from their parents is to protect them from violence or other immediate and profound dangers.
Separating families as a deterrent to improper entry into the country—“improper entry” is not my terminology, by the way; it’s that of the federal statute that makes crossing the border into U.S. territory without permission only a misdemeanor civil infraction—is evil.
The Department of Health and Human Services still has 2000 migrant children taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) border patrol as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy to deter improper entry.
I know what you’re thinking. Unconscionable. Evil. These words begin to lose their meanings in an age of endlessly outrageous presidential transgressions. Rather than suck all power out of adjectives once reserved to describe rare and extraordinarily bad actions, let me share with you a personal story about what a different kind of child separation did to my family.
Divergent Separation Stories, Universal Risks
Let me be clear, it would be wrong for me to conflate my separation story or the abuse my siblings, and I experienced at the hands of foster parents, with the deplorable experiences migrant children have suffered in American detention. Ours was (hopefully) anomalous abuse resulting from bad implementation of essentially good and sound child-welfare policy.
By contrast, infants, toddlers — children and youth of all ages — who trudged an incredibly arduous path to America seeking safety, asylum and refuge, are victims of a policy that was deliberately built by Donald Trump to make migrant children and parents hurt as a means of deterring immigration.
I share the following personal experience of what happens when the universal risks inherent in government separations of children from their families materialize because what we’ve all been watching in Texas, California and other border states has churned up painful memories and feelings in me that have throbbed heavily in my heart and soul for months now.
As child development specialist Susan Hois notes, “[s]eparation from or loss of parents due to death, divorce, incarceration or removal to foster care will have a major impact on the child’s psychological development and possibly on his/her cognitive and physical development as well.”
That was certainly our experience.
I was a 1st-grader in 1973. My sisters, Barbie and Bevie (twins) were 4. Our brother, Michael was 3 one day that year when we were taken from our mom. Still sleepy-eyed, my younger siblings had just awoken from naps as I arrived at day care from elementary school in the early afternoon, looking forward to Kool-Aide and graham crackers.
But a woman in a crisp, dark suit appeared at the door of the play room. She was from something called “the state.” She’d come to take us to something called a “shelter.”
“Where’s Mommy?” I demanded.
“Your mommy’s sick,” the woman said, trying to soothe.
Now in her 70s, Mom recently explained that shortly after seeing us off that morning, she’d tried killing herself. Barely 30 at the time, she was trying to get through college. Her ex-husband, my father, had beaten our door down the night before.
Whenever I awoke to my mom’s screams, I’d sprint past Daddy and run downstairs to a neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor would call police as my mom fought to survive.
Now, as the four of us stood in the hallway of the day care, I tried to figure out what the woman was saying to the front-desk lady. They spoke urgently and in grown-up terms that I couldn’t fully understand.
“Can we have snacks now?” I asked.
“No,” the woman said. “They’ll have lots of snacks at the shelter.”
I’ll never forget my tiny siblings’ wide eyes when I asked her, “what’s ‘the shelter?’”
It was a sprawling residence with several large rooms: an institutional kitchen, several bedrooms, two TV rooms and an office. It smelled overwhelmingly of pine cleaner.
The bedrooms were sterile and austere. I was afraid of the unfamiliar scent of my pillow and the scratchy bedsheets. I tried to prevent my mouth from touching either at night. The loudness of the other kids — all older — scared me too.
There was lots of TV time and ominous rough-housing among teenagers.
Michael, my 3-year-old brother, was in a separate bedroom from mine with toddlers and a baby. I considered it my job to protect him, but how could I when we were separated? Our sisters were separated in another wing of the shelter.
A few days in I was determined to find out if or when our mom was coming to take us home. My need to know felt physical. It resided in my stomach. I sneaked into the office.
“Can you call Mommy and tell her Michael and Barbie and Bevie and me are at the shelter?” I asked a woman at a desk.
“Go watch TV,” she said.
Defeated, I found a spot on the carpet in front of the television with a dozen other kids. I was relieved to see my sister there. Seeing me, they broke into red-faced, snot-and-tears balling.
We hugged. It helped.
“Where’s Michael?” Barbie asked. I didn’t know.
I’ll never understand why we couldn’t all be kept closer together.
The government’s current separation of children from their families at the border is child abuse. You don’t need to be a survivor of child separation or trauma to understand that. For those of us who are survivors, however, empathy runs deep.
Our time in a state shelter was benign except for the separations from one another and our mother. It was especially mild compared to what could have happened if our shelter had employed staff like any of the 14 or more Customs and Border Patrol agents charged with possession of child pornography, child rape and/or sexual assault—one of whom worked at the infamous Casa Padre shelter in Texas.
But our luck ran out once we went to foster care.
Our first foster parents were in their early 50s.The matriarch was from Germany, having emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. She would have been in her early 20s when the Nazis ran Germany. I can’t help but think they shaped her into the person who abused us—or maybe she was just born to abuse. Maybe someone abused her.
Regardless, my own experience with how the state assigned custody of me and my siblings, and the evidence at the border today — not least, reports that some children nabbed by ICE who’ve finally been reunited with their families had been denied showers and had head lice upon their returns — makes clear that the government is frequently a terrible guardian of children.
My siblings and I were eventually reunited with my mother. But many years had passed. We’ve each rebuilt varying degrees of closeness with her. Separation takes a toll. Respecting my siblings’ privacy and sparing Mom reminders of the heinous abuse we suffered in foster care, I’ll keep descriptions general. Severe beatings, deliberatively conceived humiliations, molestation, psychological torment and other acts of child abuse were committed against us by those to whom the state assigned responsibility for our wellbeing.
I know well the fear of children separated from their families by the government. If they’re like my siblings and me, abuses such as family separation, lack of access to showers and exposure to abusers, will lead them to develop destructive habits and attitudes to cover their terror.
We’ve struggled with addictions, mental and emotional disorders, relationship and other issues. My brother struggles with chronic homelessness. I fear the children separated from their parents, siblings and other family members at the border will face some of these demons for the rest of their lives too.
Thom Senzee is founder and moderator of LGBTs In The News, America’s longest-touring LGBTQ panel series, and author of the All Out Politics syndicated column.
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