Attachment And Separation, What Does It All Mean In June 2018?
This article is difficult to write. The topic is so painful, the feelings it evokes, the memories it calls to mind, the fear / fantasy of ‘what would I do / how would I feel’ if it was MY child who was being torn from my arms….all this and more permeates this piece. Babies need human touch. Babies need a nurturing parent or substitute parent if the birth parent [s] is not available in order to survive, both emotionally and physically. Babies need to be fed, ideally with their mother’s milk and they need to be held, loved and cherished by someone who loves them. Sometimes, babies, even newborns, are not able to be parented by the woman who gave birth to them or by their other parent. Perhaps the mother died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. Perhaps she was not able to parent for other reasons. Human beings and human families then look for others to care for that motherless or parentless child. Is the father or other parent able to care for the child alone? Is there another family member who can parent that child? Are there others within the immediate community able to parent? Does the family need to look beyond itself and its own circle to find a loving family? Does the state, through various child welfare agencies look for a family to parent the child?
Children, toddlers under the age of two and children from two to five, need 24 / 7 hands on parenting. School age children and teens need parenting. Separation of infants, toddlers, children and teens from their parents, by virtue of death, illness or other inability to parent may have devastating consequences, including death [of a newborn]. Medical doctors have, in the last few days, already spoken volumes about the neurological and other medical effects that may be the consequences of separating children from their parents or loved ones who parented them.
All three of us [clinical, registered social workers] have seen children, including newborns, who were separated from their parents and we have seen the effects of those separations on the children. We have seen newborn infants in neonatal intensive care units; we have seen infants in hospital nurseries; we have seen infants and children in institutions [in Romania]; we have seen infants and children ‘lost’ in the child welfare system moving from one temporary foster home to another; we have seen children moved from one family member to another to another and back again, usually also moving in and out of foster care; we have seen children whose parent was murdered by the other parent; we have seen children as young as four in residential treatment centres for emotionally disturbed children. We have seen some of the devastating effects of separating children from their parents or other, loving and nurturing caregivers.
We have also seen the almost miraculous bonding and adjustment of newborn infants and children placed quickly with loving substitute parents. We have seen newborn infants and children thrive within the love and nurturing a loving and committed adult is able to provide for them. We have seen a premature infant whose cancer ridden mother was able to be kept alive long enough for the infant to reach 32 weeks gestation and birth before she died and we have seen that newborn react, in what seemed to the doctors and nurses and this social worker to be a miraculous manner to the adoptive mother whom the child’s birth mother had chosen. We have seen numerous instances of babies and children live and grow and thrive in the loving embrace of ‘new’ parents when the birth parents and families were not able to parent. We have seen toddler and young children, and older children and teens, too, live and grow when they are finally placed in a loving environment that accepts them and meets their needs.
We have also seen babies and children who are never able to relate on an intimate manner with anyone; children who do not have any experience with trust except in that they are utterly unable to trust. We have seen children, who despite the enormous commitment and efforts of their substitute parents, do not grow up to be independent and well-functioning human beings. We have seen children who are unable to live, at all, in a family home. We have seen children who end up on the streets or in institutions, often jails, because they never learned or were emotionally free to relate to another human being.
We have spent countless hours working with parents and families who are desperately trying to parent these children whose losses are so primitive and profound that they are almost impossible to parent. We have seen and worked with infants and children who are inconsolable.
When human beings suffer the death, destruction and devastation of war, we recognize that there are sometimes irreparable losses and separations.
But, when, today, in June 2018, we see children who have been deliberately separated from their parents by a government either unaware or uncaring, it is impossible not to speak up. We three may speak as social workers, but we also speak as parents and as people. We join the enormous chorus of medical doctors, psychologists, human rights activists, religious leaders and clergy and ‘everyday’ people in shock and agony and anger at what we seeing happening today.
Some have stated that the children are being treated better than they might be treated even by their own parents and families. The children, they say, receive healthy meals, have a clean bed in which to sleep, receive clean clothes and are able to watch television [!]; there are books and opportunities for educational activities.
But, the staff looking after these children, have been forbidden to touch them. How does one even attempt to comfort an inconsolable infant or child without touching him or her? Without holding him or her? These children have been abandoned [not by choice]; they are terrified. Most will shut down emotionally; all will suffer; all will bear scars, many for the rest of their lives. Many of these babies and children will never recover.
As a society, we know the harm being done to these infants and children by being forcibly and deliberately separated from their parents. We fear that some of these children may never be reunited with their parents and we know that some will be irreparably damaged by this experience.
As social workers who have worked with trauma and loss, we find it unconscionable that in this day and age anyone would deliberately separate children from their parents and inflict upon those children what we know is significant trauma that can have long-lasting negative effects on the children.