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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Our Nation's Legacy: Solutions or Millstones

The following is my personal Position Statement concerning our nation's treatment of children and families along our southern border. While views may differ on what exactly is happening, no one can deny that something is happening and children are being separated from their families. I believe, as a nation and as individuals, we do care about the children caught in this horrible situation, but their needs should be paramount in all our discussions. I am not sure we understand the implications for the future lives of these children or for our nation as a whole.

My perspectives are built on an in-depth understanding of the effects of trauma and ruptured attachment. Over a year ago Dr. Bruce Perry provided an Expert Declaration detailing the detrimental effects of the trauma being caused by the separation of children from their parents. (Read the document here--first 17/99 pages--the remaining pages speak to Dr. Perry's qualifications to provide expert testimony.) My views expressed below are also based in what Jesus said about how to treat others, specifically children.

Almost twenty years ago, after completing my 20th year of teaching at a Bible college, I was asked for my life verse. This is what I chose. The welfare of children has always been my focus.

[Jesus] said to His disciples, "It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble." (NASB)

What are stumbling blocks for "little ones"? In my thinking, it is anything placed in the paths of children which hinders them from growing into healthy adults who are able to embrace the abundant life God intended for every person. Traumatizing children would certainly fit this criteria.

Trauma has a broader definition, but specifically it is any situation in which someone feels powerless and believes his or her life is in danger. Consider this for these children at our border. Think about the fact that we are removing the person they trusted to care for them and placing them in a chaotic world of strangers who do not speak their language. God's design was that parents would help children through these times. Life cannot always be free of trauma, but It is one thing when parents fail at protecting or helping children; it is an entirely different thing when we as a nation fail for them.

I agree our nation is facing a difficult problem, but we need to understand that Jesus tried to warn us that our treatment of "little ones" is important. Young brains, already traumatized by their difficult lives are being re-traumatized (mostly unintentionally by those government employees who are overwhelmed and following directives). All our fears of what sort of evil this onslaught of humanity could possibly bring to our neighborhoods cannot even touch the fear of one of those children separated from his or her parents.

When children are traumatized there are always results.This is a well documented and researched truth. The brain scans of those who have been traumatized as small children are different than those children who have been in nurturing safe environments. There is no disputing the fact that these children's brains are being restructured by the trauma caused by our nation's policies. We are not responsible for what happened before they reached us, but we are responsible for what is happening to them now--no matter what we think about how they got here.

Our nation will reap what is happening. My hope is that we can find solutions, but understand that without trauma-informed intervention, these children will "stumble" because of this experience. Their brains are being wired to know nothing but survival. And, even if we reunite families, these children will reap what happened for a lifetime. They believe their own parents abandoned them. Read BRAVE if you really want to understand what feelings of abandonment do to a child. It unravels the very fabric of a child's developmental growth. (See: Maltreatment and the Developing Child)

It really doesn't matter who decided separating families was a solution. It really doesn't matter if we think the solution is a wall. It doesn't matter if you believe or don't believe the reasons these children arrived at our border were legitimate. It doesn't matter if children are legal or illegal. Jesus said our treatment of children mattered. In one of his most descriptive statements he said it would be better for a millstone to be hung around our necks and be drowned than be a cause of their stumbling.

The resiliency of traumatized children is mostly myth. Our culture often mistakes survival for resilience. Resilience is built within the context of at least one stable relationship. We have removed the one hope these children had of developing resilience--their parents. The result will be vulnerability. This won't magically dissipate when the child is reunited. Their basic need for trust and safety has been violated and their brains have been rewired for survival. (image source)

The problem solving ability of our nation has been on display to the world again and again. The fact that we cannot figure out how to care for these children is not being viewed as a problem that is too big for us to solve; it is being viewed as a choice; a choice that Jesus weeps over. The world is watching. When it is time to vote again, my vote will be based on who did the best job in actually doing something to help these children--not what they said in a debate, not what causes they claim to support, but their track record in caring for children--all children. Are they willing to stop the power struggles and actually find solutions? This isn't about being right, it is about helping children.

Five years ago, at the age of 61 my childhood trauma almost took me out of the game.There was no Statute of Limitation for my trauma. There isn't for these children either. It will follow them for a lifetime without appropriate care. We hold the lives of children in our hands. I agree with Dr. Perry when he says:

"In my opinion, trauma-aware, trauma-sensitive and trauma-specific interventions are necessary to mitigate the adverse effects on the children experiencing the severe stressors of the separation from their parents. The longer such interventions are delayed, the greater the negative cumulative effect the acute neurophysiological, neuroendocrine, and neuropsychological response will have on these children and their parents." (Source)

When I realized that I had been given a chance to live the remainder of my life healed from the trauma that haunted me, I knew it would be important to speak for the small children, who like myself, have lived through the unspeakable. I understand how not receiving the help I needed in a timely manner only made things worse for me.

Trauma cuts across every culture, socioeconomic status, and religion; it knows no borders. We need to address the effects of trauma being felt in every corner of our nation, but stopping the separation of these children from parents is a good first step. This isn't some other country's problem; it is ours. These children, wherever they grow up will have this memory embedded in them. What we do for them today will effect our nation for many years in ways we can neither imagine nor understand. It is time to listen to what Jesus said. Will our legacy be solutions or millstones?

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