Over the last year, the National Network to End Family Homelessness has shared a variety of tools, tips, and information on trauma, it’s mental health consequences, and ways for child, youth, and family providers to respond. Part of being trauma-informed involves understanding how structural and social realities impact the mental health and well-being of those we serve and how policy decisions relate to our work. In this policy alert, we highlight the issue of family separation at the US border and the ripple effect it can have across populations, including those we serve. We also discuss its relationship to adverse childhood experiences and offer suggestions for responding at programmatic and structural levels. While this is only one example of how structural inequality relates to our work, there are a multitude of related issues.

How immigration policy relates to our work:

Children as young as infants have been separated from their parents at the US border with Mexico as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. While many children have been reunited with their parents, over 500 children remain separated and the number of migrant children in detention centers is at the highest level ever recorded. During this time, these children are faced with the uncertainty of continued separation from their parents. This has become a critical issue because of the potential adverse health outcomes that are likely to evolve from this policy.

Separation between children and parents may lead to both physical and psychological damage. Family separation as it relates to divorce and incarceration are two Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that have been linked to chronic health and behavioral health conditions later in life. Understandably, child detention and being separated from your parents by force are also traumatic events and may constitute forms of abuse and maltreatment – two other ACEs. Unfortunately, for many detained, immigrant children, this is not their first traumatic event as some are migrating from violent countries. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, former director of the Trauma Center in Boston, compares the separation to a psychological starvation with the potential of resulting in depression, anxiety, difficulty trusting others, forming relationships, and regulating emotions.

The effects of parental separation has been considered a toxic stressor, and can impact children of all ages. Toxic stress is an experience that mobilizes prolonged activation of the body’s stress-management system. Studies have shown that toxic stress, especially during early childhood, lead to psychological and physiological effects. Research has shown that both toxic stress and high ACEs put children at greater risk for health issues such as obesity, immune system functionality, cancer, heart and lung disease, stroke, and morbidity.

Zero tolerance immigration policy not only impacts those actively being detained, but has ripple effects on broader populations of people, including those you serve. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be triggered by witnessing traumatic events, especially if you have endured a similar experience. A recent study also suggests that witnessing violence and trauma in the media has an impact on the mental health of those who share the identity being targeted. However, beyond family separation, many immigrant families across the country fear for their family’s stability. As this article articulates, many immigrant families are dropping out of public nutrition programs out of fear of deportation, jeopardizing child food security.

How You Can Respond:

The Network has shared information and tools for screening and responding to childhood trauma. If you have not seen these resources, please visit the Network’s resource page in the membership portal or reach out directly to Avery Brien for additional information. In addition to what we’ve included in those resources, you might also consider the following:

1.Become trauma-informed! In addition to staff training, trauma informed care requires broad organizational shifts. Use the TICOMETER to assess the degree to which your organization is engaged in trauma informed practices across the following five domains:

• Building trauma-informed knowledge and skills.

• Establishing trusting relationships.

• Respecting service users.

• Fostering trauma-informed service delivery.

• Promoting trauma-informed policies and procedures.

2. Be culturally responsive and apply an equity lens to your work. Trauma-informed care requires that different traditions be celebrated, and that information is gathered in the context of every family’s beliefs, norms, and wishes. Being trauma-informed also means understanding and addressing the ways in which daily experiences of racism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other oppressions impact a person’s mental health and overall well-being. Equity work, like trauma-informed care, is iterative and ongoing. We will continue to learn, adapt, and improve.

3. Build an advocacy agenda that addresses the structural inequity that underlies family homelessness. Take time to think about the broader systems that impact a family’s housing stability and general well-being and develop an advocacy agenda that addresses these issues. This might include increasing funding for mental health services and affordable housing, fighting for higher wages in low-wage industries, education reform, and criminal justice reform.

4. For additional ideas on ways you can help with the issue of family separation, check out the article by Heather Marcoux from motherly.com: 10 powerful ways you can help immigrant children separated from their parents.


1 – Jeff Sessions: Parents and Children Illegally Crossing the Border Will Be Separated. (2018, May 7). Retrieved from http://time.com/5268572/jeff-sessions-illegal-border-separated/

2 – Note: This is not the first time we have witnessed the effects of separation from parents and children in history. Children who were caught up in historical upheavals such as the Holocaust and the El Salvador civil war are just some of the examples of how we know the separation of children from their parents have adverse health effects.

3 – The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences – UConn Today. (2018, June 22). Retrieved from https://today.uconn.edu/2018/06/science-clear-separating-families-long-term-damaging-psychological-health-consequences/#

4 – Samantha Reisz, Robbie Duschinsky, Daniel J Siegel. (2018) Disorganized attachment and defense: exploring John Bowlby’s unpublished reflections. Attachment & Human Development 20:2, pages 107-134.

5- Bor, J., et. al. (2018). Police killings and their spillover effects on the mental health of black Americans: a population-based, quasi-experimental study. The Lancet, 397(10144), 302-310.

6- Read the full article, Spooked by Trump Proposals, Immigrants Abandon Public Nutrition Services, by clicking on the hyperlink or visiting nytimes.com.