Psychologists: Migrant Parents Reunited with Detained Children Must Brace for Trauma & Long Recovery

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We discuss the psychological impacts family separation has on young children with Nancy Burke, psychoanalyst and a co-chair of the Psychotherapy Action Network, which helped publish a pamphlet aimed at helping immigrant parents separated from children. She’s on the faculty with the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis and Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and says the trauma children are experiencing in detention “freezes them in time” and takes away their ability to express themselves.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the psychological impacts family separation has on young children, we’re joined by Dr. Nancy Burke. Dr. Nancy Burke is a psychoanalyst and a co-chair of the Psychotherapy Action Network, which has helped to publish a pamphlet aimed at helping immigrant parents separated from their children understand their different children who return. She’s on the faculty of the Chicago Center for Psychoanalysis and the Feinberg School of Medicine with Northwestern University.

Dr. Burke, welcome to Democracy Now! As we’re looking at this story, the little boy, Michael, her little boy that she’s just reunited with, over a month away from him, is biting apart a Nerf football. And through the hour—it was an extended interview—he bit the whole thing apart. Talk about the effect on these children.

NANCY BURKE: [inaudible] say is that normal reactions—I don’t like to use the word “normal,” but I’m going to use it in this case, because I want to emphasize that normal reactions to abnormal circumstances look abnormal. So, if you saw a child in a playgroup chewing on a Nerf ball, biting it to pieces, you would be very confused about that. But we can appreciate that children, who don’t have language and they don’t have a way to express their needs and they don’t have a way to express what’s frightening to them, would act out in their bodies. And that’s something that we know over and over again. It’s something that parents hopefully haven’t had to see so much of.

And we thought that was our role, to be able to tell parents these are normal reactions to very abnormal circumstances. And this is really—reunification with children who have been through the circumstance is really—it’s either an opportunity or a real nodal point, that can be extremely difficult after all of the hope and all of the final relief in the reunification. So, you know, we wanted to be able to impart that knowledge to parents so that they have some sense of what to expect and how to react.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this brochure. It’s not geared to the general public. You’re doing it for the separated parents, who, so excited if they finally accomplish this feat of finding their children, separated by the Trump administration, that they find such different children.

NANCY BURKE: Absolutely. And they don’t expect it. If you are in that circumstance, all of your interest, all of your hope is going to be focused on reunification. And that seems like an end to the story in itself and a happy ending, and all the more shocking than when it isn’t. And so, we wanted to be able to use our knowledge, the things that we sit with in our office every day when we talk to people who have been traumatized, people who are adults who have been traumatized as children. We know some things about what to expect and what the sequelae of trauma are, and how long-lasting they are, how they show up. And we wanted to be able to offer that, because, first of all, we just wanted to be able to prepare parents, who really aren’t prepared psychologically. They’re really prepared to be reunited, and they’re prepared to—you know, for that one moment. And they don’t really brace themselves—how could they?—for the long, long period of recovery afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about these children that have been drugged? You have heard these previous reports we brought you, kids who were shot up with—it’s not even clear what drugs, when they cry for their mothers or for their fathers.

NANCY BURKE: This is a really just devastating and terrible thing, because one of the things that we know is that children who are traumatized don’t have access to their feelings, and therefore can’t put them in words, can’t structure them, can’t use relationships in order to be able to make them manageable. And what this does is, essentially, it gives children a lack of access to be able to express themselves. So, in essence, it freezes them in time, and it does so in a way that’s very frightening. They suddenly don’t even know themselves. And their parents can’t know them, either. So, we’re very concerned about these reports.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute, but the long-term impact of this trauma and what resources do these parents have? I mean, Belqui, who we just played her story, is wearing an ankle monitor. You know, it’s put on by the U.S. government. She is tracked everywhere. But what resources do they have to help their children?

NANCY BURKE: You know, when we gave this pamphlet, really, it’s a symbol that there are other resources out there, and there are organizations of concern. It really will take a village, a very long time. We did leave a space on the pamphlet for information about local organizations. We highlighted United Way, Freedom for Immigrants. We highlighted Informed Immigrant. And we wanted people to know that there were organizations. But on our pamphlet, we were really happy to be able to add something from Fred Rogers, who’s helped so many American children over the years over TV, because one of the things that he says over and over again is, “When you’re in trouble, find a helper.” And we want to encourage people to reach out. One thing we know is that trauma tends to silence people, and it tends to not be spoken of. And so, we just wanted the pamphlet to be a catalyst, so that things that weren’t thought to be spoken of could really be spoken of with people who can help.

AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Burke, we want to thank you so much for being with us, psychoanalyst, co-chair of the Psychotherapy Action Network. We will link to the pamphlet you published, aimed at helping immigrant parents separated from their children.

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