The Reality of Reunification - A Lifelong Journey Begins


hundreds of families are back together again after being separated by the US government at the border. unfortunately for the children, life is not quite the same and many experts are saying that it may be a long road getting anywhere close to normal. A big thanks to Sarah Kelly and stacey mietus for sharing articles for this post.

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Special thanks to Sarah Kelly and Stacey Mietus for sharing articles related to this post.

The stories of families reunited tell of joy and relief, mixed with the knowing that the journey to healing the trauma of separation has just begun. The path is full of uncertainty as help is not readily available for all children. Parents who once knew their kids as vibrant, outgoing youngsters are now witnessing signs of trauma which, many experts say, if left untreated, could contribute to long-term suffering.

A recent New York Times article tells the story of Thiago, a 5 year old who was separated from his mother for 50 days. He and his mother are now reunited and struggling with their "new normal."

From the New York Times article -

Before they were separated at the southwest border, Ana Carolina Fernandes’s 5-year-old son loved playing with the yellow, impish Minion characters from the “Despicable Me” movies. Now his favorite game is patting down and shackling “migrants” with plastic cuffs.

After being separated from his mother for 50 days, Thiago isn’t the same boy who was taken away from her by Border Patrol agents when they arrived in the United States from Brazil, Ms. Fernandes said last week.

When they first got home after being reunited, the boy — whom she hadn’t nursed in years — pleaded to be breast-fed. When visitors showed up at the family’s new home in Philadelphia, he crouched behind the sofa.

“He’s been like that since I got him back,” Ms. Fernandes said. “He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Similar stories of children who are struggling after being reunited with their families are being shared daily. The NYT article continues -

“Our volunteers are seeing the significant and real toll that these traumatic separations have had on these children’s and these families’ lives, which persist even after reunification,” said Joanna Franchini, who is coordinating a national network of volunteers working with migrant children and their parents called Together & Free.

A 3-year-old boy who was separated from his mother has been pretending to handcuff and vaccinate people around him, behavior he almost certainly witnessed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, according to those working with him. A pair of young siblings burst into tears when they spotted police officers on the street.

Most children who are experiencing problems so far display acute anxiety around routines that separate them briefly from their parents, such as when the adult bathes or goes into another room, said those who are monitoring these reports.

“These kids don’t want to be without their mothers; it triggers a feeling of abandonment, or that their mother will be taken away from them,” said Luana Biagini, a paralegal who has been working with reunited Brazilian families.

Click here for the full New York Times article.


"Children who have undergone traumatic separation often cling desperately to their parents after they are reunited and refuse to let them out of their sight, say therapists and child psychologists. Many suffer from separation anxiety, cry uncontrollably and have trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares," reports an article by The Washington Post.

The article also quotes Luis H. Zayas, professor of social work and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin, as he recounts the story of an 8-year-old girl he counseled after authorities removed her and her undocumented parents from their home and separated them for several days as her parents awaited charges.

Even two years after the incident — after the girl was reunited with her parents as the family awaited court hearings to cancel the deportation — Zayas said: “She couldn’t let go of them, ever. She had nightmares and would get fearful whenever she saw any police vehicles. She lived in extreme fear that her parents would do something wrong and be taken away again. It stayed inside of her.”

Click here to read the article from The Washington Post.


Some experts are saying that forced separation affects the neurobiological system that starts with the infant's connection to the parent or primary caregiver and can lead to lifelong challenges.

An article on the website highlights this theory:

Any traumatic disruptions in the development of this system puts the child at risk of developing “insecure attachment.” This insecure attachment can lead to lifelong emotional problems for the child, affecting the quality of subsequent marital relationships, relationships to children, and the development of personality disorders.

In addition, it correlates to the development of psychiatric illnesses, specifically depression and anxiety. There is also a plausible biological basis for attachment theory. Both oxytocin, a hormone released in human bonding, and social interaction itself have been shown to decrease cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol has been found to negatively affect infant brain development.

Read the article here at


There are many factors that will influence a child's response to traumatic separation such as length of time apart from parent, the abruptness and intensity of the split, and the conditions surrounding the departure from the family's origin.

Whether a child is able to receive proper treatment and attention to deal with trauma and PTSD, is another story.

A quote from the aforementioned New York Times article may sum it up best -  

“Kids differ in the way they respond, but it is naïve to think that these reunions could be joyful,” said Oliver Lindhiem, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched children who experienced separation. “Things don’t go back to the way they were.”

By Michael J Krass

Articles quoted:

"A Migrant Boy Rejoins His Mother, but He’s Not the Same," article by Miriam Jordan, The New York Times.

"The trauma of separation lingers long after children are reunited with parents," by William Wan, The Washington Post.

"Family separations and the intergenerational transmission of trauma," by Sarah Reinstein, MD, (Clinical Psychiatry News)




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