Web Bonus: Psychologist Dana Sinopoli Warns Migrant Children Face “Systematic Traumatization”

Web ExclusiveJune 26, 2018
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Extended discussion with Dr. Dana Sinopoli, a psychologist who penned an open letter condemning the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Dana Sinopoli. She’s a psychologist who wrote a letter about the effects of the separating of children and parents, in response to their separation on the border. We’re talking about well over 2,000 children.

In that letter, she wrote, “To try and argue that this policy of ripping children from their parents at the border is somehow different from the systematic traumatization of children during the times of slavery, forced assimilation, and the Holocaust is to disregard history. To somehow convince ourselves that this systematic traumatization of children has no bearing on the lives of these children and no impact on the legacy of our country is to be living in an alternate universe. And to not care about the impact these policies have on these children is to succumb to the worst potential of humanity.”

Those, the words of Dr. Dana Sinopoli. She wrote it. And then people started signing on, hundreds, then thousands of mental health professionals and mental health organizations. At this point, Dr. Sinopoli, how many people and organizations have signed on to your letter?

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: So, at this point and on Monday, the letter and all of the signatories, all of the names, were sent to President Trump and Attorney Sessions and Secretary Nielsen and Paul Ryan and leaders of the House and Senate. And they will receive the letter and the names of over 13,000 mental health professionals, over 200 mental health organizations and over 8,000 signatories from the general public.

AMY GOODMAN: That quote, where you talk about the intergenerational effects, we touched on it in Part 1 of our conversation. Talk about it now, the intergenerational effects of separating children from their parents.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Sure. So, that which remains outside of what the mind can really process and formulate, that which is, we considered, unspeakable and unformulated, it gets passed down to the following generation. And I want to reference—it’s a really compelling example in this book called Lost in Transmission, which is exactly about intergenerational transmission. And there is an example of a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue. His name is Maurice De Witt. And he notes that after 9/11, parents held their children’s hands so much tighter than he recalled seeing prior to 9/11.

And there’s so much happening. You know, if we could kind of like pause the camera on this moment, there’s so much happening in this one second, that this child is getting these diametrically opposing messages from parent, both “I brought you to Santa, go to Santa, enjoy Santa,” and at the very same time, this child is getting the message to be afraid, to stay close. The parent’s anxiety is transmitting just in that very bodily sensation of holding the hand tighter. So, in addition to kind of these diametrically opposed messages, the child is also experiencing the anxiety from 9/11, even though the child herself did not witness or experience 9/11 directly. And this is how we understand the way trauma gets transmitted unconsciously, that nobody is talking about the trauma itself, but it’s actually being experienced from the parent into the child.

And we know this from Holocaust survivors, as well, that children of survivors, they have spoken about their parents kind of constantly preparing for calamity, this hoarding of food, this overfeeding, this fear that children being—that children going out into the world was synonymous with impending danger or death. And then children of survivors wound up fearing for their parents’ safety and in—for a fear of leaving their parents. So, we see how even if one generation doesn’t directly experience the trauma, they have a way of kind of knowing that something happened, even though neither is talking about the what. And we anticipate that this will happen with these children, as well, because it’s exactly with what we have known to happen in these prior collective traumas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to raise another aspect of this crisis. I want to turn to a shocking investigation by Aura Bogado at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She reports that immigrant children were subdued and incapacitated with powerful psychiatric drugs at a detention center in South Texas. And legal filings show that children held at Shiloh Treatment Center in southern Houston had been, quote, “forcibly injected with medications that make them dizzy, listless, obese and even incapacitated.” I’m wondering your reaction to that.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Yeah, and, you know, I will be clear that I’m not a prescriber. But what I can speak to is that giving medication to children is not taken lightly, that their age makes them so much more susceptible to side effects. There is also so often a really intense conversation so that parents understand the medication, so that children understand the medication, so that parents are consenting to medication. And somehow none of this is happening, that somehow these parents and children are not afforded the right to know what these children are taking in.

And another thing I want to point out is that trauma, it manifests in presentations that can look like psychosis, hallucinations. It can look like emotional dysregulation. It can look like depression. And so, to medicate these children, without any consideration of the traumatic and compounded traumas that they have experienced, it actually makes it even harder for these children to process the trauma itself. So I think many of us in the mental health field, providers, are not—are really appalled and deeply troubled by this.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to this heartbreaking Washington Post recording of Arnovis Guidos Portillo speaking to his 6-year-old daughter Meybelin. He was deported back to El Salvador last week. His daughter remains in U.S. custody. This is a clip of their recent conversation, in which 6-year-old Meybelin asks her father, “When are you going to take me out of here?” His reply: “They’re going to bring you soon, Love. They have to fix the airplane.”

MEYBELIN PORTILLO: [translated] When are you going to take me out of here?

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO: [translated] They’re going to bring you soon, my love.

MEYBELIN PORTILLO: [translated] When?

ARNOVIS GUIDOS PORTILLO: [translated] Soon. They have to fix the airplane. Meybelin, do you have friends there?


AMY GOODMAN: “Do you have any friends there?” the Salvadoran father asks, who was just deported, Arnovis Guidos Portillo. And she says, “No.” And he asks her, “Do you have dolls?” And all she keeps responding is, “When are you going to take me away? When are you coming to get me?” Dr. Sinopoli, talk about this. This is such a painful video. We’re actually seeing the father as he talks to his daughter on the telephone, as he quietly weeps so as not to upset her.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: It’s so painful to hear. And I think we need to bear witness to what is happening. You know, one of the things I really appreciated about what Michael Bennett was saying earlier is about this process of dehumanizing, that we have forgotten that these children and these parents are human beings. And when they are referred to as “animals” or that they are somehow “infecting” our country, it turns them into insects, into animals, and it dehumanizes them. And one of the reasons that we need to bear witness to this audio and these images is that we need to remember that these are human children and human parents.

And we know that no matter how clean or stocked with toys or filled with medical personnel a place is, none of that will take the place of a child who has lost her parents. So this comparison with this as summer camp and having everything, it’s such an insult.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to New York Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, who was speaking on CNN last week. Rice was asked by host Wolf Blitzer if she believed that children separated from their parents would eventually be reunited with their families.

REP. KATHLEEN RICE: I don’t see how it could possibly happen. And to be frank, the administration has basically admitted that, that there is no way that they can reunify these children with their parents. They didn’t take any information at the time that they took them from them. A lot of these kids barely even know their own names, don’t speak English. So this reunification process is going to be next to impossible, it seems to me, which, you know, I hope people really understand that. There are 2,300 children who may never see their parents again, ever. And that’s on us, this country, the United States of America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering your response to this shocking conclusion by the congresswoman.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: I haven’t heard any plan for reunification. You know, I think when this EO, this executive order, came down, yes, we had a reason to recognize that this had something to do with the pushback that had been made in response to this. At the same time, I have yet to hear an actual plan of reuniting these children with their parents. And then I think she’s right: It is on all of us, that we have a collective responsibility to be informed, we have a collective responsibility to speak out, and we have a collective responsibility to use whatever resources we have to make sure that this administration knows that this is unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Dana Sinopoli, this letter, that is now signed by over 13,000 people, where are you hoping this will go? We have not seen, for example, the Senate Homeland Security Committee, headed by Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—he was asked repeatedly: Will they be holding hearings? Asking the administration, asking President Trump, demanding to know of Jeff Sessions: What are the plans to reunite these children? The government says 500 have already been reunited, but there’s no proof been offered. Now they’re talking about building these bases out—


AMY GOODMAN: —two Army bases, to hold the children now with their parents. And the effect of that?

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: Yeah, I—you know, this almost leaves me speechless. I think all we can hope for with this letter–and I know that over 21,000 signatures, it might not lead to any action. But this is really about how people sleep at night. And I don’t know how else to put it, that we are going to continue making noise, that we are going to continue communicating that this is unacceptable. And I wish I had a straight answer about what will happen. But I can say that each of them will get this letter, and it is up to their consciences what they do with this. But we will continue reminding them that these are human beings, and we are responsible for what happens to them.

AMY GOODMAN: We had on a whistleblower who quit one of these facilities that are holding hundreds of children, and he said he was told by the supervisor to tell these three kids—a 16-year-old, 10- and 8-year-old brother and sisters—two brothers and a sister—to stop hugging, that they could not touch each other. He said then—he was supposed to tell them this in Portuguese. And he turned to the supervisor and said, “I cannot. You have to tell them this.”

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: I so applaud that. I mean, that is this breaking, you know, that I will not just follow orders. And I so applaud and commend that response and that decision. And again, to remember what it means to be held, to be touched, to have body contact, during a moment of trauma, and to deprive children of that is—again, it leaves me without words. That is another aspect of this that is unspeakable. To have no bodily contact or bodily connection, and to deprive two siblings of some sense of security in this utterly terrifying experience, it leaves me—it leaves me speechless.

AMY GOODMAN: And where can—

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: And, you know, I will say that not all—yeah, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: I was just going to say that, you know, of course, children aren’t all one-size-fits-all, and so there is a continuum of how they will experience this. But that doesn’t mean we can turn away from the impact that this will have on many of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Dana Sinopoli, we thank you so much for joining us from Philadelphia, psychologist who wrote the open letter condemning the Trump administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border, signed by over 13,000 mental health professionals and hundreds of mental health organizations.

That does it for this segment, but to see Part 1, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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