Commentary: Family separation: A tragic American tradition

Injustice towards children has been replayed many times in American history.

Time magazine (July 22, 2019) stated: “It was the very definition of slavery that children belonged not to their parents but to their masters”. All enslaved children were freely acquired property assets to be sold, traded, or raised for free labor.

The same article also noted “Native American children were routinely separated from their communities to be sent to boarding schools where they were supposed to learn to become “Americans””. In the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were placed in 350 government funded and often church-run Indian Boarding schools where they were beaten, starved or otherwise abused when they spoke their native languages.

From 1854 to 1929, over 200,000 impoverished, abandoned or orphaned children were transported by train to farm families in 45 states, Mexico, and Canada, where they provided free labor to their new caretakers.

In the 1930’s Jewish refugee children from Europe were blocked from entering this country, despite the awareness, that their return to Europe, guaranteed their death.

One of our most shameful human rights abuses was the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War 2. Though children remained with their families, they were deprived of the security and safety of community, school and friends.

Georgia Tann, known as the Mother of Modern Adoption, ran a black market child trafficking ring masked as a legitimate adoption agency in Tennessee from 1920 to 1950. She provided wealthy white families with children stolen from poor white families in the southern states. She allegedly had great political support and protection.

The mass incarceration of more than 2.2 million individuals in the United States, allows for the ongoing separation of families and children, with permanent emotional damage guaranteed as a result of the trauma of separation.

Tragically, this disregard for the physical and emotional needs of children continues. We often read stories of children who suffered or died from severe neglect and/or abuse despite the expressed concerns of relatives or neighbors to legitimate government agencies that did not complete adequate investigations of the complaints. 12,800,000, (17.5%) children remain the poorest group in this country, according to Children’s Defense Fund poverty report for 2017.

In July, 2019, the Texas Tribune reported that children are still being separated from parents at our southern border. More than a year after the current Administration was forced by court order in June 2018 to end a controversial “zero-tolerance policy” that led to thousands of family separations, as many as five migrant children per day continue to be separated from their parents.

The trauma of separation that these children experience is unfathomable. Yes, most children experience some anxiety on leaving home for the first day of school, or when hospitalized or other occasions when separation is necessary and legitimate. However, their terror is short-lived. They are well cared for during the separation, and are soon reunited with their families. Their trauma is reduced through reassurances and physical comfort by the temporary caretakers such as nurses, school teachers, and grandparents.

Such is not the experience of the children at the border, who have traveled for days, weeks and sometimes months, only to be torn away from their families with no explanation, and caged in overcrowded detention facilities where they receive minimal care. Some children no older than eight are taking care of infants and toddlers. At least eight children have died while detained. They did not die in an active war zone but in a supposedly protected environment in this country of tremendous resources.

The long repetitive history of family separation brings into question the level of our sense of responsibility, moral obligation and concern for all children. It was wrong in 1619 and it is wrong in 2019. America has a history of exploiting, neglecting and abusing children when the growth of our economy becomes a greater priority than the mental and physical health of the next generation. To use innocent helpless children as pawns to deter illegal border crossings is as unacceptable as the previous abuses done to children for supposedly the greater good. This is not about the rights of immigrants. It is about our responsibility towards children.

There are many questions we must ask ourselves. How much do we care about and value children? For those of you guided by faith based beliefs, have you complied with the command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Others, guided by the rules of democracy might ask, if when affirming allegiance to the flag of our country, are our actions consistent with our pledge for, “Liberty and Justice for All”?

As citizens, responsible caretakers, and righteous individuals, what is our moral obligation on behalf of these children; the most dependent and “least” among us? What are we willing and able to do to help the children currently in detention centers and to prevent more children from becoming new statistics in America’s history of family separation? Let us all work to change the legacy of neglect, abuse and indifference towards children to one of responsible concern and care.

Charlotte King represents the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice.

Vivienne Holt represents the Women’s March Sussex – Delaware.

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