America’s Racist War on Children

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration is once again considering separating migrant children from their families. As COVID-19 rages in family detention centers and children’s shelters, a federal judge has ordered that the children be released. But the government has refused to allow parents to be released along with their children, forcing parents to choose between keeping their child in detention during an uncontrolled pandemic or sending their children to foster homes. The children are as young as six months old.

How miserably we treat children in America. The evidence is devastating. The news drives this crushing reality home every day.

We have children sobbing in detention facilities where our government has forcibly separated them from their parents – captured by SWAT-like teams deployed by Orwellian “Homeland Security” authorities.

Elsewhere around the country, thousands of children are being raised without parents because of racially driven mass incarceration and unaccountable police brutality. Kids are slaughtered in their own schools because of legislative paralysis on gun violence. Our environmental laws betray a convenient dismissal of science and ignore the catastrophic impact that global warming will have on our children. And as a dismal representation of American exceptionalism, our child poverty rates are off the charts, and now further exacerbated by the pandemic’s disparate economic devastation.

Adding to these tangible assaults is President Donald Trump’s ugly rhetoric, which foments racism and white supremacy and which has led to a dark epidemic of bullying, cruelty, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, immigrant-baiting and hate crimes. As a pediatrician in a majority-minority city, a mother and an immigrant from Iraq – a country on the original Muslim ban – this is especially wrenching.

I’m often asked what troubles me most in this long list of crimes against our children. It’s difficult to pick the worst. But one of the most devastating is the Trump administration’s cynical strategy of trying to discourage asylum seekers by ripping children from their parents’ arms as they cross the border into what they hoped would be a safe haven from the violence they are fleeing in their home countries. Documenting the atrocities of forcible separations of families by U.S. border officials, Physicians for Human Rights experts reiterate that those family separations meet the legal criteria for torture and enforced disappearance.

The repercussions? One year after reunification, children who were forcibly taken from their parents are still crying, still not eating and still having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties. They show regression in age-appropriate behaviors and often cling to their parents, still terrified of being removed from their love and care. One little boy in the study told his mother that if he is separated from her again, he plans to kill himself. 

This isn’t dystopian science fiction or a streaming TV show. What you are witnessing is a government-sanctioned war on our children. And as a doctor, I know the broader medical and public health consequences of this war. When children are exposed to trauma, especially repetitive trauma, it has the potential to leave lasting, lifelong, and even intergenerational scars. These range from developmental delays to increased rates of chronic diseases and decreased life expectancy.

The only good news here is that we have gotten better at helping kids recover from traumatic events. We have a host of evidence-based treatment plans for the diagnoses that PHR experts documented in the children they evaluated: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder. We must demand that the U.S. government provide treatment for the impacted families to help them recover. And we must call for an end to the traumatizing policy that allows for child separation, especially during a pandemic.

But we must do more. As eloquently stated by Frederick Douglass, a resilient survivor of many traumas, including family separation, abuse, and slavery: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

Building strong children. When will we start caring about that? To upend America’s war on children, we need to understand what caused it, and how we became a country that has hardened its conscience to children. Historically, of course, we were once a country that enslaved children. Family separation of “property” was constitutionally permitted. When we look back at that era of American life, we can’t help but see a debased and corrupted society – one that had to be destroyed through the bloodiest war in our history. 

We may think we’ve transcended that ugly past. We may feel those crimes were long ago, and now unthinkable. But, in this moment of racial reckoning, we realize that it has only morphed. The parallels between the capture of immigrants in sanctuary cities and the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act and Dredd Scott in undermining the Underground Railroad are not to be taken lightly. 

Today, in order to embrace a new reconstruction, we must ask ourselves again what kind of society we wish to be. Our policies have not only failed to be child-centric, they have become child-phobic and misanthropic. Is this only our president’s doing – or a broader trend consistent with our history? Our next generation is majority-minority, black and brown. Will we continue to let racism – with its dog whistles of “America first” – distort our natural and collective responsibility to all America’s children?

Our kids are watching. Let’s put an end to America’s racist war on children.


Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (@MonaHannaA) is a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Flint, Michigan, and a member of Physicians for Human Rights’ Advisory Council; she helped uncover the Flint water crisis and now leads recovery efforts as director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative and is the author of “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.”

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