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Pediatric Doctor Says She's Worried About Trauma Migrant Children Are Experiencing


We're learning more about what it's like for migrant children separated from their parents by the U.S. government. And we're going to hear from someone now who has seen firsthand where some of these children end up, a pediatrician worried about the trauma the kids are experiencing. The Department of Homeland Security says about 2,000 children were taken during a six-week period in April and May.

The children are put in centers overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, while their parents face charges. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is in the border city of McAllen, Texas. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So you and some of your colleagues have been able to see some of these shelters that are housing children. What do they look like?

KRAFT: So the shelter that I was able to tour was a shelter that was designed for very young children up to the age of 12. And as you walk in, you find that there's a lot about it that is child-friendly. So there are toys and books and beds. There's a little playground on the outside. It had a much warmer feel than some of the pictures that we've been seeing.

However, you walk into the toddler room and we normally see kids who are toddlers rambunctious and are running around and laughing and playing. And you didn't see that there. What we saw were a number of little kids keeping pretty quiet to themselves, some of them playing with toys, and one little girl in the center of the room who was sobbing and wailing and crying.

And the staff person next to her who was trying to give her a toy was not able to touch her and was not able to pick her up and was not able to emotionally support her. And we all knew what the problem was. We all knew that this little child needed her mother, and none of us could give that to her.

CORNISH: What's behind that policy?

KRAFT: I don't know. I don't know why that policy exists, but we were told that they couldn't pick up the children and hold them.

CORNISH: So what does that mean for children this young? How does that affect their well-being?

KRAFT: So that's really an important question. As little babies, we connect with that caring parent who helps us through our concerns with feeding and sleeping and helps us calm down when we're upset. And for little children, what stress does is it increases their stress fight or flight hormones so epinephrine, cortisol, norepinephrine.

And what we know is that in the absence of that loving caregiver, these stress hormones become toxic to these kids. And in fact, this is called toxic stress.

CORNISH: Presumably, even being detained with a parent would be traumatic. But in your view, would it make a difference? I mean, we're hearing elsewhere in the program that Congress is actually working on legislation that might allow parents and children to be detained together.

KRAFT: So being detained together is really going to be important. And the reason is this, is that children can go through traumatic episodes in their life. And, in fact, this is called tolerable stress. So something awful and stressful happens to a child, but when they have that loving caregiver who can respond to their needs, they can calm down those stress hormones, they can help them become resilient.

And that's why keeping parents and children together even at a very stressful time is so important.

CORNISH: Your organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, what are you guys doing to address what's happening?

KRAFT: Our message is that children's health has to be deliberately built. If you don't build it right, it doesn't happen correctly and that we're in a situation where we are seeing child health development inflicted by the pain of separation.

CORNISH: Colleen Kraft is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KRAFT: Thank you.

CORNISH: And we've asked the Office of Refugee Resettlement whether there is a policy that prevents staff from holding children to comfort them, and we'll report back what we learn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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