I Wrote a Post a Year Ago About Family Separation, and I’m Physically Ill That It’s Still Relevant.
My Facebook “Memories” feature popped up something that shouldn’t be a memory, let alone a present reality.
A year ago, enraged by coverage I heard on a long commute about immigrant and refugee children being forcibly separated from their parents, I could barely focus on driving. When I continued to hear interview and statement snippets from administration officials who justified these inhuman acts by claiming that the practice had been established by earlier administrations, as if that claim bore any relation to human suffering, I pulled over and began to write. I posted the longest thing I’d ever authored, and I made it public — a setting I’d never used.
A year later, the news cycle again shows coverage of separated and detained children, suffering without blankets or soaps or comfort, in deplorable settings, frightened and weeping. It shows coverage of administration officials justifying and burying this torture under the dismissive language of red tape and duplicity. And then Facebook showed me my post again. It showed it to my friends again, too. And the fact that this post is relevant to something that’s still happening enrages me. That children are still being abused, officially and brazenly, by our own government, should enrage all of us.
On June 20, 2018, this is what I wrote:
The first time I worked with a child who had been removed from her family, she asked me three times when I would come back to see her again. The third time, I opened my datebook and handed her a pen, and we circled the date together. As she doodled a picture on it so I wouldn’t forget, she said, “I know sometimes grown-ups don’t always do what they say they’ll do, but if you don’t come on this day, I won’t be mad. I promise I won’t be mad. Just come back and see me. I won’t be mad.” Her absolute certainty that things wouldn’t go as planned, and her immediate instinct to smooth that over, broke my heart. It wasn’t the last time my heart was broken by a child who was removed. But it was the first time I witnessed a glimmer of all the things that such a removal could mean.
When I worked with children, it was as part of a judicial process that gets a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of criticism. That scrutiny, and that criticism, is warranted, because there is nothing — absolutely nothing — more assaulting to the core of a child’s spirit than being taken from their family. And here is the thing about that judicial process: as imperfect as those involved in it sometimes found it to be, it was indisputably a process. There were judges, and lawyers, and timelines. There were structures and plans. There was, almost always, visitation. There was a framework that I could refer to; something I could sit a child down and explain, step by step, as slowly as I could. Something I could talk about when that child adopted the posture I came to recognize over and over: an internal and external crumpling, as if bending themselves over a small and terrible hole that exerted its own gravitational force. And it did. That hole was loss. “These are the steps. I am here to help you. I am so sorry about how much this hurts. But I am here to make sure that you are heard.” Small things to say. Small things to do. Small — if any — comfort to a grieving child. Small reassurance that they would come through the process. And never as the same person.
You can’t force a child’s whole world off its axis and ever put it back again. Removal isn’t a displacement of location. It is a displacement of self. Everything that child knows about herself as a person in the world is defined in the context of her family. Once that context is stripped away, the most you can hope for is some opportunity to gently rock that little planet back into some kind of regular rotation. Even when — if — there is a plan to reunite that child back into her family, everything has changed. The world already moved. Nothing is certain ever again. “I know grown-ups don’t always do what they say they’ll do.”
The reason doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to a child. No matter how compelling the circumstances or how dire the alternatives, or how much it needed to happen. No matter how clear the steps or how regimented the process is, no process can fix the damage. And that’s when there is a PROCESS. Without one? Without any process, or timelines, or counsel, or judge — without a plan to reunify or any clear idea of where the parts of the family may be? That’s not just abusive. It’s inhuman. It diminishes all of us. I am astounded that anyone could respond to concerns about separated children with an argument that boils down to, “Children have been traumatized for years, by other people. This isn’t new.” It’s true that cruelty isn’t new, even if the particular form of cruelty absolutely is. To me, what’s more troubling is this: how in the world is “children have always been traumatized” ever, EVER a justification, for anyone, to traumatize more children? How can it be a justification HERE?
I still have that datebook. I still have the drawing. I keep that conversation with me every day of my life. And all these years later, I remember that child who told me that grown-ups don’t always do what they say they are going to do to help a child. I am determined to be better than that. We all must be better than that. I used to think my country was better than that. Now I’m not so sure.