PHILADELPHIA — 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.”
Thiago is among nearly 3,000 children who were forcibly removed from a parent at the border this spring as part of the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. After a national backlash, President Trump ended family separations on June 20, and more than 1,800 separated children have been reunited with their parents over the past few weeks.
But many of the children released to their parents are exhibiting signs of anxiety, introversion, regression and other mental health issues, according to reports from lawyers, immigrant advocates and volunteers working with reunited families.
“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.
“I have mothers complaining that their child was more outgoing and talkative, and now they are quiet and unresponsive. Some take a while to process information or a situation, and Mom has to say, ‘Hey, hey wake up,’’’ said Ms. Biagini, who works at the Jeff Goldman law firm in Boston.
The recent round of separations was hard on children in part because the parents themselves were so traumatized, according to those who have worked with the families. In some cases, children were torn from their parents’ arms amid tears and pleas. Other children appear to have been duped — told they were being taken to play with other children but never returned to the parent.
Often, parent and child were prevented from communicating for weeks or longer. In limbo and confused, many children likely internalized the separation as a punishment, experts say.
Decades of research have concluded that children traumatically separated from their parents have a high likelihood of developing emotional problems, cognitive delays and long-term trauma. More recent studies have found that separation can impair memory and normal production of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress.
“There is no greater threat to a child’s emotional well-being than being separated from a primary caregiver. Even if it was for a short period, for a child, that’s an eternity,” said Johanna Bick, a psychology professor at the University of Houston who studies adverse experiences in childhood.
Factors such as how long a parent and child were apart, how emotionally fraught and abrupt their split-up was and the difficulty of the family’s journey through Mexico can all influence the long-term outcome for separated children.
Responsive parenting, professional intervention and other steps can act as buffers that mitigate the trauma.
“The bad news is that the first few years of life are a sensitive period of brain development; what happens can have dramatic impact later,” said Ms. Bick, whose research has focused on children placed in foster care and institutions. “The good news is that children are resilient, and early intervention can benefit them.”
The Trump administration placed separated children in about 100 shelters, often hundreds of miles away from their parents. While the basic needs of young children were met in the shelters, the environment was more restrictive than it was nurturing. For safety reasons, children were not permitted to touch each other. Staff members in most shelters were allowed to hold the youngest children, age 4 and under, but instructed to keep older children at arm’s length.
A small share of children, about 10 percent of those removed from a parent, were placed with a foster family. But one foster family often takes in several children, making it difficult for any one to receive personal attention.
Asked if he got hugs from his foster family, Thiago wagged his finger “no,” and then softly said, “They didn’t like me.”
Yet returning to a loving parent can also be painful.
“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.”
After prolonged separation, he said, children often swing between being withdrawn and clingy.
Thiago and his mother were apprehended by the Border Patrol in New Mexico on May 22. The next day, officers informed Ms. Fernandes and other Brazilian mothers detained at the same border facility that their children would be removed from them. Thiago cried himself to sleep when his mother broke the news to him. Another boy had a panic attack and had to be hospitalized.
“When the officer came for Thiago, he had to carry him in his arms because he was so sleepy,” Ms. Fernandes said. “Then he began to cry.”
About four days later, Ms. Fernandes, who had been transferred to a federal prison, was summoned to take a phone call. A woman on the line informed her that Thiago had shut down. He refused to eat. He wouldn’t bathe.
Thiago was put on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably. She urged her son to eat. She assured him that they would be together soon.
But several weeks passed before mother and child would speak again. Ms. Fernandes had no idea that Thiago had been flown to Los Angeles and placed with a foster family.
After posting bond and being released from detention on June 10, Ms. Fernandes was handed a toll-free number to locate her son. She called the number immediately after arriving in Philadelphia, where she moved in with relatives, but she had to have help from a Boston lawyer, Jesse Bless, to get Thiago released.
It didn’t happen until July 13. When she spotted her son at baggage claim at the airport, Ms. Fernandes said, she ran toward him, her heart racing. “I cried and hugged him — but he didn’t even care. He stood there frozen,” she recalled.
When Thiago first spoke, he asked to talk to his grandmother in Brazil and made the first of what would be several calls a day by WhatsApp.
That night, he approached his mother’s breasts, wanting to nurse. Figuring it would soothe him, Ms. Fernandes gave him a baby bottle with milk, a comfort which soon turned into a habit.
As time has passed, Thiago is still sometimes moody and aloof, dashing into the closet suddenly to avoid interaction.
But other times, he lets down his guard.
At a Brazilian restaurant, he was excited by the desserts in a display case and later dug into a flan while watching “Peppa Pig” cartoons on a cellphone.
But when his mother disappeared momentarily, he became antsy and frightened. “Where’s my mom?” he asked repeatedly, his eyes darting around the room. On her return, Thiago asked why she had taken so long.
Later, assuming the air of a cool cop, he donned plastic green shades, shoved a plastic gun in his shorts and swaggered toward his red bicycle with training wheels. He cackled with glee as he raced his 8-year-old relative Rogerio to a playground, where he fearlessly dangled from a jungle gym and swung from a rope.
He pleaded to go to the community swimming pool on the edge of the park, and Ms. Fernandes signed Thiago and Rogerio up for the last two spots in a free swim class.
But on the first day of lessons, Thiago bolted from the pool as soon as the instructor approached him.
Ms. Fernandes said she is thinking of finding a therapist for her son, because whatever is wrong, it does not seem to be quickly going away. “My son used to be carefree,” she said. “He wasn’t this way.”
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