By Thom Senzee
The only reason a government should ever to take children away from their parents is to protect them from violence or other dangers. Separating families as a deterrent to improper entry into the country—“improper entry” is not my terminology, by the way; it’s that of federal statute making the act of crossing the border without permission a misdemeanor civil infraction, not a criminal violation—as a deterrent to unlawful immigration is evil.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) still has 2000 migrant children snatched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) border patrol agents as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy—a policy conceived to deter improper entry.
I know what you’re thinking. Words like “unconscionable,” “evil” and “unAmerican,” all of which have been used to describe the cruelty that’s been going on at the border since the early part of this year start to lose their meaning after a while. So as not to suck all impact out of strong adjectives describing the known effects on innocent children of Trump’s policies, let me share with you a personal story about what a different kind of child separation did to my family.
I was a 1st-grader in 1973. My sisters, Barbie and Bevie (twins) were 4. Our brother, Michael was 3 one day that year when we were taken from our mom. Still sleepy-eyed, they’d just awoken from naps as I arrived at day care from elementary school in the early afternoon looking forward to Kool-Aide and graham crackers.
But a woman in a crisp, dark suit appeared at the door of the play room. She was from something called “the state.” She’d come to take us to something called a “shelter.”
“Where’s Mommy?” I demanded.
“Your mommy’s sick,” the woman said, trying to soothe.
Now in her 70s, Mom recently explained that shortly after seeing us off that morning, she’d tried killing herself. Barely 30 then, she was trying to get through college. Her ex-husband, my father, had beaten our door down the night before.
Whenever I awoke to my mom’s screams, I’d sprint past Daddy and run downstairs to a neighbor’s apartment. The neighbor would call police as my mom fought to survive.
Now, as the four of us stood in the hallway of the day care, I tried to figure out what the woman was saying to the front-desk lady. They spoke urgently and in grown-up terms that I couldn’t fully understand.
“Can we have snacks now?” I asked.
“No,” the woman said. “They’ll have lots of snacks at the shelter.”
I’ll never forget my tiny siblings’ wide eyes when I asked her, “what’s ‘the shelter?’”
It was a sprawling residence with several large rooms: an institutional kitchen, several bedrooms, two TV rooms and an office. It smelled overwhelmingly of pine cleaner.
The bedrooms were sterile and austere. I was afraid of the unfamiliar smells of my pillow and scratchy bedsheets. I tried to prevent my mouth from touching either at night. The loudness of the other kids – all older – scared me too.
There was lots of TV time and ominous rough-housing among teenagers.
Michael was in a separate bedroom from mine with toddlers and a baby. I considered it my job to protect him, but I how could I when we were separated? Our sisters were put in another wing altogether.
I was determined to find out if or when our mom was coming to take us home. My need to know felt physical. It resided in my stomach. I snuck into the office.
“Can you call Mommy and tell her Michael and Barbie and Bevie and me are at the shelter?” I asked a woman at a desk.
“Go watch TV,” she said.
Defeated, I found a spot on the carpet in front of the television with a dozen other kids. I was relieved to see my sisters. Seeing me, they broke into red-faced, snot-and-tears balling.
We hugged. It helped.
“Where’s Michael?” Barbie asked. I didn’t know.
I’ll never understand why we couldn’t all be kept closer together.
The government’s current separation of children from their families at the border is child abuse. You don’t need to be a survivor of child separation or trauma to understand that. For those of us who are survivors, however, empathy runs deep.
Our time in a state shelter was benign except for the separations from one another and our mother. It was especially mild compared to what could have happened if it had employed staff like any of the 14 or more Customs and Border Patrol agents charged with possession of child pornography, child rape and/or sexual assault—one of whom worked at the infamous Casa Padre shelter in Texas.
But our luck ran out once we went to foster care.
Our first foster parents were in their early 50s.The matriarch was from Germany, having emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. She would have been in her early 20s when the Nazis ran Germany. I can’t help but think they shaped her into the person who abused us—maybe she was just born to abuse. Maybe someone abused her.
Regardless, my own experience with how the state assigned custody of me and my siblings, and the evidence at the border today – not least, reports that some children nabbed by ICE who’ve finally been reunited with their families had been denied showers and had head lice upon their returns – makes clear that governments are terrible at caring for children.
My siblings and I were reunited with my mother, but not until after many years passed. We’ve each rebuilt varying degrees of closeness with her. Separation takes a toll. Respecting my siblings’ privacy and sparing Mom reminders of the heinous abuse her kids suffered in foster care, I’ll keep descriptions general. Severe beatings, deliberatively conceived humiliations, molestation, psychological torment and other acts of child abuse were committed against us by those to whom the state assigned responsibility for our wellbeing.
I know well the fear of children separated from their families by the government. If they’re like my siblings and me, abuses such as family separation, lack of access to showers and exposure to abusers, will lead them to develop destructive habits and attitudes to cover their terror.
Bad custodial decisions by the state still plague us. We’ve struggled with addictions, mental and emotional disorders, relationship and other issues. My brother still struggles with chronic homelessness.
One of the worst things I’ve read so far about ICE’s child separation policy was a report that siblings were forbidden to hug one another at an HHS shelter. Another has been the life-threatening policies regarding detention of transgender migrants. Does the Trump administration know not a single limitation to its cruelty?