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The urgent need to reunite children with their families


The urgent need to reunite children with their families

A global outcry is building over the ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy, which has resulted in the separation of migrant children from their parents at the US/Mexico border.

The US administration has pledged to end the cruel practice of separating children from their parents, yet there is no clear sign that those children already separated will be reunited with their families any time soon.

Currently, thousands of children are housed in detention centres far away from their parents, some of whom have already been deported.

“Separating children from their parents and depriving them of the care and attention they need bears all the hallmarks of institutionalisation, which has a serious, long-lasting impact on children’s physical and emotional well-being,” said Elizabeth Seuling, Executive Director of Lumos USA. “The US government must immediately mobilise resources to provide proper care and protection for these children and expedite family reunifications.

“Many of these families have fled violence and made dangerous journeys to the border. The inhumane institutional conditions in which these children are being held will only compound the trauma they have already experienced.”

In the short-term, separating children and placing them in institutions presents immediate risks to their health and leaves them at grave risk of all forms of abuse and neglect. The longer a child spends in an institution, the greater the risk the child will suffer physical stunting, have poor social and psychological development, and exhibit behavioural, physical and mental health problems that result in poor outcomes later in life.

Lumos CEO Georgette Mulheir notes that it would appear many children currently in detention centres are exhibiting signs of toxic stress.

“When a child experiences continued neglect and trauma, and they are not comforted by a caring, responsive adult – usually a parent – then the stress response overloads a child’s developing systems. Toxic stress can adversely affect brain development and lead to a range of lifelong behavioural and psychological disorders.

“Experts at Lumos have witnessed such trauma and behaviours amongst the millions of institutionalised children across the world – from refugee children in detention centres in Europe, to babies in institutions in Kenya and Sudan, to children trafficked to institutions in Haiti. Children who have been separated from families do much better when cared for by foster families – and family-based care is much cheaper than institutions. But in most cases, the best solution is to support families to care for their own children.”

The USA was one of the first countries to move away from warehousing children in institutions and towards family-based care. It is essential to ensure that the evidence-based practices pioneered decades ago in the USA inform the next steps in responding to this current crisis.

Lumos is working with other organisations in the US to offer support and expertise to reunite these families.

Watch this short video to learn more about toxic stress

Children separated from their parents at the US border are showing signs of toxic stress, but what is toxic stress?

Toxic stress refers to strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system.

Moderate stress experienced by a child is relieved by interaction with a caring and responsive adult.

In cases of continued neglect and trauma, the continued activation of the stress response overloads the child’s developing systems and can cause depressive disorders, behavioural issues and PTSD, resulting in physical illness, poor health, and even suicide in later life.

Children separated at the border must be reunited with their parents.


For more information, please contact Kathryn Snowdon /