Policy Brief: How the “Zero Tolerance” Family Separation Policy Harmed Children and Families

By USCRI December 15, 2021

Perhaps ironically – because it is the national holiday of family togetherness – Thanksgiving 2021 marked the fourth anniversary of public knowledge that the U.S. government’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their families. On November 25, 2017, the Houston Chronicle reported that the prior administration had been separating parents who crossed the border with children.

Initially, the Houston Chronicle reported evidence of 22 separations. We now know that more than 5,000 children were separated from their parents in 2017 and 2018 – typically without a plan for reuniting with parents or other family. 1727 children remained separated from family as of September 30, 2021.

The family-separation separation hurt children. Family separation hurt parents and extended family members. This brief summarizes the current research on the specific harm and costs of family separation to those affected. The brief then contextualizes the specific harms within a broader research base. Family separations produce long-lasting trauma – potentially lifelong – in both migrant children and
their parents, aptly encapsulated by Kelly Edyburn and Shantel Meek:

“Even short experiences of detention, particularly when children are separated from parent and caregivers, are associated with serious, lasting negative effects across every domain of functioning.”

Finally, the brief recaps a new paper that quantifies the cost to each child and each family of the family separation policy: at minimum, tens of thousands of dollars per child, but likely much higher.

Click here to read more.

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