Expert Pitch
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences

Expert Available: Family Separation at the U.S. Border – and What Research Shows

Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, a UCLA pediatrician who has studied the effects of early childhood confinement in the U.S. and of family separation during El Salvador's civil war, is available to discuss the short-term and long-term health effects of the separation of immigrant children from their families at the U.S. border.

  • Barnert says the effects of separation can be long lasting – even permanent. "Family separation is incredibly traumatic and painful for everyone involved. It can create an unresolvable grief, which can impact both children and parents for life. Disruption of the family unit impacts people for the rest of their lives – both psychologically and likely in terms of physical health."
  • In instances of family separation, how the separation occurs can have a huge impact on the grief the children and parents feel. Says Barnert of her research in El Salvador: "The actual circumstances of the separation of the family really influenced the experience throughout the stages of separation and reunification. For families separated suddenly and even violently, the confusion and fear regarding whether they will ever be able to see each other again is incredibly traumatic. It creates a toxic stress that can have lifelong negative impacts on their health. In contrast, for families separated more slowly due to reasons of poverty or fear for safety, the impossible decision to separate—done when families see this as their only reasonable option for survival—in addition to creating trauma and fear, can also create resentment from children. ‘Why did you abandon me?,’ is a sentiment that children in this situation commonly express. The truth is that the parents acted lovingly to protect the life and well-being of the child, but when the fundamental need for a child and parent to be together is disrupted, the pain is lifelong, regardless of circumstance. The initial period of separation is most often terrifying, and years of grief ensue, even after the reunion and well into the reunification process."
  • In the instance of El Salvador, during which many parents did not know the fate of their children after separation, many parents "experienced ambiguous loss," says Barnert. "Parents that are unable to contact their children – and are unsure whether they'll ever be able to see them again – face incredibly difficult feelings. It is hard for them to mourn their child because they don't want to lose hope that their child is okay, but not being able to mourn child is itself so painful for them."
  • Barnert says that in Texas, parents being deported may experience "extreme guilt" because of the separation, as parents perceive their fundamental role as being protector and provider for their child. "The disruptions of this creates an unresolvable trauma, despite the 'impossibility of the situation' that caused the separation."

Barnert's recent research in the International Journal of Prisoner Health has noted that early childhood imprisonment is linked to high rates of severe physical and mental health issues, even into adulthood, for the children confined.

Her prior research in Human Rights Quarterly has explored the reunification experiences of families who had been separated during El Salvador's civil war.

Barnert, herself the daughter of a Cuban refugee, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

To request an interview, please contact Ryan Hatoum at rhatoum@mednet.ucla.edu or 310-267-8304.

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