Opinion

Renée Graham

We should protect young kids from toxic stress — not inflict it on them

Homeless children have a safe play space inside the Catholic Charities St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester.
Lane Turner/Globe staff
Homeless children have a safe play space inside the Catholic Charities St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester.

President Trump rescinded his own odious policy of separating migrant children from their families. That doesn’t mean the damage inflicted on these kids will soon end.

What they are enduring — isolation, disorder, fear — threatens them far beyond childhood. And the younger the child is, the more harmful and lasting the effects. It’s a phenomenon Kate Barrand witnesses firsthand. As the president and CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children in Roxbury, she often encounters kids under the age of 5 whose uncertain lives are overwhelmed by what’s called “toxic stress.”

It’s “a prolonged period where children’s environments are disrupted, where the consistency that children thrive in is removed,” Barrand said. “From [age] 0 to 5, the routines of daily life are incredibly important to children, and living in a shelter, the routines of daily life get completely disrupted. This is stress over a long period of time, without abatement.”

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That’s what Horizons for Homeless Children works to mitigate. It is not a daycare or a shelter. Ranging from its early education centers to a “playspace” program for toddlers, and a family partnerships program for parents, it offers families stability and sanctuary from the rigors of homelessness.

Still, for a child facing toxic stress, the best buffer is this: “One safe, trusted relationship with a parent or guardian,” Barrand said.

Migrant children now living in shelters and detention centers lost their buffer at the border.

We already know there’s no administration plan for reuniting more than 2,300 children with detained parents or other adult guardians. For the foreseeable future, it’s likely their time in shelters and tent cities, or with foster families and facilities in various states, will continue.

With Trump’s policy in flux, what will happen to other children arriving at the border is unclear. On CNN this past week, Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, described the Trump administration’s treatment of these children as “government-sanctioned child abuse.”

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Seen and unseen, toxic stress is insidious. During the early years of brain development, it may “literally alter the brain’s architecture” in infants and children, Barrand said. How a child develops trust is compromised. Language and gross motor skills, such as crawling or walking, can also be delayed.

Barrand shared the story of a 14-month-old girl who came to Horizons, and “showed no real interest in anything around her,” she said. “Yet when an adult would walk by she would grab on, almost for dear life.” And this was a child who was still with her mother.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of border shelter workers saying they’ve been instructed not to touch the children. During her recent visit to a border shelter, Kraft said she saw a 2-year-old girl scream and slam her fists on a mat after she was taken away from her mother. No one comforted her.

The long-term outcome for children who feel abandoned and neglected can be catastrophic.

Horizons for Homeless Children has a strategy to address that. For the hours they spend there each day, kids can just be kids — romping, playing, learning, and engaging with each other, staff members, and volunteers. In addition to the 175 children in the program (there’s a wait list of at least 180), Horizons also sets up playrooms in family shelters across Massachusetts.

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With its emphasis on “trauma-informed practices,” as Barrand calls it, this approach is the antithesis of what’s happening to the thousands of kids wrenched from their families and, essentially, left to their own devices. The repercussions are dire and immeasurable.

“What I’ve heard is in those environments where these children, especially the young ones, are being held, there’s nothing. No toys, no books, nothing,” Barrand said. “We know from our work everyday what will happen to these children. Their brains will be weakened by this experience, and there will be lifelong impacts.”

For these children, Trump’s immigration policy isn’t just “zero tolerance.” Like so much else connected to this dystopian administration, it’s also zero compassion and zero humanity.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham