This week, Massachusetts General Hospital for Children held its annual Pediatric Global Health Summit. The keynote speaker, Dr. Pamela McPherson, is a pediatric psychiatrist, mental health expert for the Department of Homeland Security, and renowned whistleblower. In July 2018, amidst the public outcry against the government’s family separation policy, she and colleague Dr. Scott Allen exposed the severe physical and psychological effects that detention was having on immigrant children, effects they knew would be magnified when children were taken from their families.
At her talk, McPherson recounted her path towards becoming a whistleblower. Growing up with limited financial means, she learned that other marginalized children experienced inequities far worse than the ones she faced. Her “why” in life — her purpose — had become “to make the world a bit more fair for children.” Her “how” has made history.
Last winter, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released its report about the persistent psychological effects of the U.S. government’s family separation policies on arriving immigrant families. As a medical expert with PHR, I had examined some of the women and children in the study, and I described their experiences of separation. The shocking but clear findings that the family separation practices were consistent with United Nations definitions of torture and enforced disappearance were quickly lost to the all-consuming news about the uncontrolled COVID-19 pandemic.
They were deliberate in their cruelty, hoping to deter future immigrants from coming, but put no thought into keeping track of where children and parents were going ...
Tuesday, we learned that 545 children separated from their parents at the country's southern border remain separated. These 545 children were taken from their parents in 2017. Three years ago. Despite extreme efforts to locate their parents (most of whom were deported), the attorneys tasked with reunifying families cannot find them.
Based on reports by experts like McPherson, the administration knew the psychological ramifications separation would have; yet they did it anyway. They were deliberate in their cruelty, hoping to deter future immigrants from coming, but put no thought into keeping track of where children and parents were going once separated or how they might be reunited, if ever.
These 545 children were largely separated during the less well-known pilot period of family separation that occurred from July through October 2017 in El Paso, Texas. Deciding it was a success, or perhaps not caring if it wasn’t, the pilot became official policy. In just six weeks, from early May until the end of June 2018 when family separation officially “ended” by virtue of executive order, followed quickly by an injunction mandating swift reunification, more than 2,800 children had been taken from their parents. By December 2019, the total number of children separated from their parents had risen to 5,512, comprising 2,246 children under 10 years old and 300 children under 5 years old. Clearly, family separation ended on paper only.
[A]s Minneapolis wept, Portland fought back and California burned, as my daughter gleefully entered preschool and my son started kindergarten by Zoom ... my 'why' has become clearer.
We are in the middle of a global health emergency on a scale not experienced in more than a century. Yet the current administration has used the last eight months as an excuse to continue its assault on the rights of immigrant children and their families.
Our borders are effectively closed to asylum-seekers under the guise of public health. (Yet they remain open to others.) Children and families seeking refuge now stay in dangerous camps on our southern border in Mexico with little access to food, clean water or health care, and at an incredibly high risk of assault, kidnapping and other horrors.
This past spring, I struggled with how to reconcile my work as a physician in an eerily empty intensive care unit. I am a pediatric critical care doctor, and COVID-19 is primarily a disease of adults. I felt like a frontline imposter. That feeling has dissipated. I am, in fact, on the frontline, of a battle much bigger than COVID-19. The pandemic has simply brought my perspective into focus.
As detained mothers pleaded with me this summer to help them and their children avoid deportation, as Minneapolis wept, Portland fought back and California burned, as my daughter gleefully entered preschool and my son started kindergarten by Zoom, as attorneys worked through the night to prepare passionate legal arguments on behalf of immigrant children, as racism — not skin color — continues to drive disparities in access to, and outcomes, in healthcare, my “why” has become clearer. Not only is it “time to put children and young people first during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” it is time to put children and young people first — period.
[U]ltimately, everything we do in life is either for our own kids or for the benefit of future generations.
Those 545 children represent everything we must address if we are going to move our country forward in becoming more inclusive, welcoming and safe. The 545 children still separated from their parents are here because their families wanted more for their children — they wanted a more secure financial future, access to education and health care and freedom from the fear of constant everyday violence. As a pediatrician and a mother, of course I am going to prioritize the rights of children.
But so should you. Because ultimately, everything we do in life is either for our own kids or for the benefit of future generations. Protecting the environment, providing small business loans, paying taxes for schools and bridges and methadone clinics, advocating for evidence-based alternatives to detention, improving long-term care for the elderly all ultimately improve the lives of children, those who care for them, and those who teach those children how to become kind and responsible adults.
McPherson closed her talk with a simple but comprehensive recommendation: “Nail down your 'why' and your 'how,' and fully embrace them. And be prepared.” My own children, those 545 children, the children I treat in the hospital and the many children I have yet to meet are my "why." My "how" is my dedication to evidence-gathering and truth-speaking. And you’d better believe I’m prepared.