Holding Our Babies In Mind: The Need for Infant Mental Health Informed Immigration Policy and Best Practice
By Megan Smith, MA, LCAT, Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Therapist, SPCC
A local family’s daily activities became widely reported following a traffic stop on 3/23/17 in Geneseo. A woman from Guatamala and her 12-year old brother were detained by Border Patrol or ICE in Irondequoit, NY while her four children (Ages: 2 mos, 6 mos, 2 yrs, 4 yrs.) were separated from her and sent home with her sister, and her sister’s four year old daughter. The woman and her young brother were then sent to Buffalo for further immigration processing.
In my role as the Infant/Early Childhood Therapist working in the Family Trauma Intervention Program at SPCC, the parent-child relationship and early childhood development of social-emotional needs are my primary focus. I honor the potential for this diverse family structure to support the children’s social-emotional needs during this stressful time of not knowing what will become of their family members. I also wonder at the infant and young children’s experience, specifically the loss of being able to touch their mother, and if they are missing her voice and her smell, the familiar way she holds them right before they fall asleep and how she knows which cry means “hungry” and which cry means “set me free”.
I wonder who, if anyone, explained to the young children what was happening to their mother and family member at the time of the traffic stop, and if so, in what language? What kinds of facial expressions were the police and border patrol officers wearing when they acknowledged or didn’t acknowledge them? I wonder what sights and sounds and smells the children will remember from waiting on the side of the road while authorities gathered, and then were sent home without their mom to put them to bed.
To be suddenly removed from your familiar caregiver has potential to be detrimental to children’s developing sense of self, and sense of the world. We know that children’s brain’s grow fastest in the age range of 0-3 years, and the effect of traumatic events can be buffered by primary caregiver relationships. How can we process something that we don’t yet have language or understanding for, but also no one to help us regulate and contain the grief, anger, sadness, and fear?
In a statement by the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, systems such as Border Patrol are encouraged to consider the unique needs of infants and young children, instead of separating them from their mothers due to immigration laws:
The Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health (Alliance) joins the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in firmly opposing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposal to separate immigrant mothers from their children when they arrive at the U.S. border. The science of infant mental health is clear that relational health is the foundation for optimal social, emotional and cognitive development across the life span. That is, the parent-child relationship provides safety, comfort, and security, ingredients required to promote good mental health for infants and children. This relationship provides a protective bond, an interruption to which is traumatic and places the young child at risk for significant developmental and behavioral disorders in early childhood and later years. We know that building on a shaky foundation is risky for sustaining physical and mental health. We encourage all systems that interact with families to take into account the needs of infants and young children for emotional and physical safety by assuring that no young child is separated from his/her parents.
Deborah Weatherston, PhD, Executive Director, Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, Inc. ® Margaret Holmberg, PhD, Board President, Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health, Inc. ® Marcy Safyer, PhD, LCSWR, IMH-E® IV-C, Board President, New York State Association of Infant Mental Health
As an IMH specialist I must bring myself into the work, and acknowledge that my experience as a white, straight, American, female offers me privilege and potential for bias. I do not have a meaningful understanding of this family’s culture and values, but I do understand that the evidence-base that makes up our field of IMH is clear in acknowledging that very young children require consistent and adequate care from a primary caregiver to develop into healthy adults.
I would like to use my position to start a conversation about how we can begin to support systemic change that takes the unique and diverse needs of young children and their relationships to their primary caregivers into consideration when developing policies and practices.
To learn more about SPCC’s Infant and Early Childhood advocacy, treatment and training, contact Megan Smith, MA, LCAT at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Sarah Fitzgibbons, LMHC, MT-BC, IMH-E® (IV-C) at email@example.com.