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News & Events

Detention at a "Tender Age"

Even though we may have all breathed a sigh of relief on June 20 with President Trump’s Executive Order ending family separations, the crisis has not ended.

Even before arriving at our borders, the children in the headlines and heart-wrenching photos in the news this week were already acutely vulnerable.  It is often extreme violence or poverty that leads families with children to migrate to the United States. The Executive Order to detain families, while not requiring immediate separation of children from their parents’ care, is nonetheless deeply detrimental to the well-being of children. Detaining families, even if parents and children are allowed to remain together, exacerbates the extreme stress these families have already endured, with potentially dire consequences for the children.

In addition, the futures of the more than 2,000 migrant children who have already been separated from their parents remain unclear. Research on the outcomes of youth raised in institutional or multiple foster homes suggests the “tender age” detention facilities and the like will be far from tender.

At this point, even if the detained parents are eventually granted amnesty and allowed to live in the U.S. with their children, they will be hard-pressed to singlehandedly provide the additional support their children will need to overcome the initial trauma of separation or detention.

For those subject to the new Executive Order, the future holds family detentions of indeterminate length and eventual deportation. Without high-quality intervention, it is likely that the impact of these detentions and separations will have long-lasting effects on the health and well-being of the children and their families.

Research in our field shows time and again how a consistent, caring environment during the first years of life is essential for healthy child development. Young children who face chronic stress due to family separation and instability are more likely to experience physical health challenges. These children also struggle emotionally, such as having higher rates of depression and anxiety.. These negative consequences are not isolated to childhood. Without supportive interventions, adults who have experienced extreme stress during childhood are at increased risk for acute and chronic health problems. In fact, what research tells us about the role of adverse childhood experiences on factors related to later physical and psychological illness suggests that our actions now will play a profound role in shaping these children’s futures.

There are, however, effective interventions that can provide these families with the resources and tools they need to help them recover and cope with their situations. Trauma-informed care (TIC), for example, uses evidence-based approaches to reduce the impact that traumatic events have on children’s health and well-being.

But who is responsible for mitigating the damage done by these detentions?  Some will argue that it is the parents of the children who brought their children on such a dangerous journey; while others will argue that the United States maintains the moral responsibility to act. And so we must ask, what now?

The current federal border policy of criminally prosecuting parents and detaining families involves further traumatizing already suffering children.  Regardless of their stance on these parents’ actions, it is incumbent upon our leaders to ensure these infants and young children, those at tender ages,  are given a fighting chance to lead healthy, happy, productive lives. Their well-being affects us all.


Maggie KerrMargaret L. Kerr, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
State Specialist in Vulnerable and Underserved Children, UW-Extension
Affiliate, Center for Child and Family Well-Being



A photo of Janean Dilwort-BartJanean E. Dilworth-Bart, PhD
Chair, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Chair, Wisconsin Prenatal to Five Initiative
Affiliate, Center for Child and Family Well-Being



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