Gupta: Kids develop toxic stress without parents

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta says the separation of children from their parents can have lasting health effects on kids, such as increased risk of heart disease, drug use and alcohol abuse.

Posted: Jun 21, 2018 11:08 PM
Updated: Jun 21, 2018 11:10 PM

Dr. Tara Neubrand often treats children with a history of trauma.

As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, she has seen young children recovering from life-threatening injuries and histories of abuse.

Yet in the past several weeks, when three toddlers were brought to Neubrand on separate occasions for medical care, they each were unlike any case she had ever seen, she said.

The children, ages 1 and 2, recently had been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border and were placed in the care of foster families.

Neubrand treated the children at a hospital where she works in Colorado, hundreds of miles from the border.

"All the foster families told me the kids had been with them two weeks or less, and the reasons they brought them in were all pretty mild illnesses," such as rashes or upper respiratory infections, Neubrand said Wednesday.

However, "if their behavior hadn't been so abnormal and I hadn't started asking questions about their background, I may not have known anything about their back story," she said of the children.

"They were the opposite of stable. Emotionally stable kids don't act the way these kids were acting," she said.

Foster mom: 'I'm just trying to not ruin his life'

The three toddlers -- two from Guatemala and one from Honduras -- left such a lasting impression on Neubrand that she wrote about them in a Facebook post on Monday, which garnered more than 5,000 reactions and more than 6,500 shares.

She wrote about how the children clung to their foster parents and did not try to explore the world around them, as many wide-eyed toddlers tend to do. The children also never spoke to or communicated with Neubrand, a fluent Spanish speaker. That's not unusual, she said. What was disconcerting was their physical behavior.

They "could not be put down by their foster parents at all. Not just in the ER but also at home," she said. "They were clearly trying to find literally anyone to hold on to."

One child, a little girl, would latch her tiny fingers onto her foster mother so tightly that it was difficult for the woman to put the child down, even for a bath, Neubrand said.

"She was asking if I had any suggestions about better ways to bathe her. She was sponge-bathing her. She was doing the best she could do. It was just so heartbreaking that was going on," Neubrand said.

Another child, a little boy, constantly cried out for his father, Neubrand said.

"One of the moms told me that the little one, all day long, would just yell 'Papi, Papi, Papi.' She would try to tell him 'It's OK, it's OK, it's OK.' He just kept calling out," Neubrand said.

"She just kept saying to me, 'I'm just trying to not ruin his life. I'm just trying to not ruin his life.' She was clearly doing her best, but this kid wanted his dad."

None of the three foster families spoke any Spanish, and they were unable to communicate with the toddlers, Neubrand said.

'From a medical standpoint, it was not safe'

Other than where the children were from and knowing that the parents were in custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Neubrand and the foster parents were not given much information about the children, and they had no medical history information.

"From a medical standpoint, it was not safe," Neubrand said.

On Wednesday, the American Medical Association sent a public letter to the Trump administration, urging the federal government to withdraw its "zero tolerance" policy on separating migrating families from their parents and caregivers.

"The Administration's 'zero tolerance' policy was a topic recently discussed at the AMA's Annual Meeting, which includes delegates representing over 170 state and national specialty medical societies," Dr. James Madara, CEO and executive vice president of the association, wrote.

"During this meeting we heard from delegates that the Administration's policy will do great harm to children and their parents or caregivers, who felt compelled to make a dangerous and uncertain journey because of safety concerns in their own countries," he wrote.

On Thursday, US Customs and Border Protection announced a new practice aimed at keeping apprehended families together after President Donald Trump's executive order, which the White House said would keep families together who cross into the US illegally.

The new practice, however, does not address what happens to children who were separated from their parents over the past two months and who are probably now in the custody of a different government agency.

There are about 2,300 migrant children separated from their parents.

"Separating kids from families with whom they are bonded is very clearly traumatic and very clearly harmful for children," Neubrand said.

She has not received word regarding the current condition of the children she treated or whether the children might be reunited soon with their families.

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