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Former Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent: The Science Is Crystal Clear; Do NOT Separate Children From Their Families

While some children are dangerous and do require confinement and treatment, almost no child taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border fits this category.

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by Virginia State Senator Dave Marsden (D-37th District)

The cruelty enacted by the Trump Administration in separating minor children from their parents is egregious on its face. What concerns me even more is that the science around the detention of young people is available and widely understood. The science is crystal clear: unless a child poses an imminent public safety risk or an imminent risk to themselves, alternatives to detention and separation from family should be pursued.

I spent part of my career as a probation officer making decisions around whether to remove young people from their families for their criminal behavior. (Fortunately, in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act prohibited the detention of status offenders – runaways, truants, incorrigibles – in secure, locked facilities.) The rest of my career was spent as Superintendent of Fairfax County’s Juvenile Detention Center and a 2 ½-year stint in Richmond as Chief Deputy and Acting Director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) – which operated probation, parole, and confinement for 1,200 incarcerated delinquents convicted of criminal offenses. In the Fairfax Detention Center, I had as many as 137 children and 55 beds. We had to sleep kids in mattresses on the floor. Today, we average 30-40 kids in the Fairfax Detention Center and have fewer than 300 in the DJJ. Why has the dramatic drop in populations occurred?

One factor for the dramatic drop in juvenile incarceration is that we now know better and only detain or incarcerate those who are an imminent public safety risk. We now know that detained kids who are not public safety risks are only made worse by the experience. Children who are unnecessarily detained fall victim to the principle of “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” What this means is that children we thought we were teaching a lesson to were not learning how to behave but were rather having their worst feelings about themselves confirmed by the juvenile justice system – ultimately making them more likely to live a delinquent lifestyle.

In 2001, as Acting Director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, we initiated a best practice of creating structured decision-making or risk instruments to determine, on a more scientific basis, whether youngsters should be detained in local juvenile detention centers or could be released to their families on outreach detention or electronic monitoring pending their court dates.

We are making better decisions today because in the past we did not know the impact of our actions on these children and their families. We thought we were helping by teaching them a lesson, but we were actually making things worse.

All of this is background for what is happening at the border and the damage that can be done to children in this thoughtless and ill-informed policy of separating these children and their families. In 1997, the Adverse Child Experience Study (ACE) was completed by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What this study demonstrated for us is how critical a decision it is to separate a child from their family and the damage that is perpetrated on that child.

All of us have the capacity to overcome a temporary negative experience. What children often do not have the capacity to overcome is prolonged trauma that this separation inflicts on them. Detention itself can have traumatic impact even if families are together. Younger children who witness or experience abuse, violence, emotional mistreatment, and privation can fundamentally be psychologically rewired in ways that hinder their ability to handle normal life situations. The best example of this is a parable told by a psychiatrist from San Francisco I heard at a conference. She said, “Imagine yourself a child walking alone in the woods and coming across a bear. The child runs from the bear and is terrified but in the normal course of events, with comfort from the family, the freighting episode can be overcome and life can move on without permanent adverse impact. Now, imagine that you live with the bear.”

This is the science and what we know about thoughtless interventions that may appear to solve our problems but rather damage others irrevocably. While some children are dangerous and do require confinement and treatment, almost no child taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border fits this category. Whether they are our children or children seeking asylum from another country, our obligations – as people who know better – are clear. These children may end up staying in the United States under our asylum laws. Do we want them healthy and capable of contributing to society or traumatized and unable to function appropriately? This is an easy choice no matter how you feel about immigration. The science and our experience tells us not to separate children from their families. The unintended consequences can be serious.