Family Separation’s Psychological Trauma in Parents, Children Persists After Reunification: Medical Study

members drugged, kidnapped, poisoned, and threatened children, including threats of death or bodily harm, if they or their parents did not comply with the gang’s demands.

While anti-immigrant actors have pushed false narratives that asylum-seekers embellish claims to obtain asylum, the study also found an absence of signs of malingering in all cases. Clinicians concluded that the 31 parents and children interviewed showed “no evidence of exaggeration or deception,” providing accounts that “constitutes an entirely expectable, natural and cohesive psychological story.” Evaluations of separated children and parents also provided further evidence of harmful and inhumane treatment by U.S. immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border.

This article builds upon the landmark 2020 report by PHR, “‘You Will Never See Your Child Again’: The Persistent Psychological Effects of Family Separation,” and provides further evidence that the practice of forced family separation not only constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment consistent with the legal definition of torture, but that the severe psychological trauma associated with separation persists for both children and parents. 

Parents reported severe residual effects of sustained trauma including physiological manifestations of anxiety and panic, experiencing “pure agony,” emotional and mental despair, and suicidal thoughts. Children exhibited reactions that included behavioral regression, even after reunification.

In one instance, an 8-year-old boy who was separated from his father for three months continued to have nightmares and to meet full diagnostic criteria for both post traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety disorder today, two years after being reunited with his father. For children and parents who were separated for even longer periods of time, in some cases for several years, the level of trauma and long-term consequences for their overall development could be even more severe. 

Interviews with separated children and parents also showed that the conduct of U.S. immigration officials was punitive rather than protective. Asylum narratives detailed in the study documented multiple instances where parents were taunted and mocked by immigration authorities when asking for the whereabouts of their children following forced separation. Half of the parents interviewed by PHR clinicians reported poor living conditions at the detention facilities where they were held, and children also reported being mistreated or living in poor conditions while detained and while in foster care. 

As the Biden administration and Department of Justice consider redress options, the study also includes PHR’s call to the U.S. government for a multi-system, multi-sectoral support, including health and mental health services, legal services, and reparations for the documented and verifiable trauma inflicted on asylum seekers by this policy. Beyond immediate reunification of parents and children on U.S. soil, PHR calls on the Biden administration to consult affected families regarding the most appropriate means of reparation, including but not limited to a formal apology by the U.S. government, a pathway to permanent legal residence, prosecution of the officials responsible for the policy, and potential monetary settlements for impacted families.

Clinician members of PHR’s Asylum Program recommend various trauma-informed adaptations to mitigate harm to children and parents seeking asylum, during the on-going legal process. They outline practices that immigration authorities should incorporate, such as providing additional time to process questions and formulate responses, repeating questions, pre-medicating with anti-anxiety medication, allowing for frequent breaks to rest and allowing children to remain with parents during the interview or allowing parents breaks to see their children.

“Physicians for Human Rights has long documented the detrimental effects of forced family separation on asylum seekers, and the findings of this study provide additional medical evidence that the psychological trauma could potentially be life-long,” said Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights’ Asylum Program. “While this fact must be considered when determining legal settlements for victims of the policy, the U.S. government’s narrow focus on the determination for an exact dollar amount is a shameful deflection from the critical actions it should immediately commit to – supporting justice and treatment for survivors of this inhumane policy and reforming the United States’ punitive and abusive immigration system so that we never repeat this shameful chapter of American history.”