The Trauma of Parental Separation Can Last a Lifetime

700 children are still separated from their families. The long-term impacts will devastate them. I know, because it happened to me.

When I was a baby I was separated from my parents. The details of the story are lost, but I do know that when I was days or weeks old I was left in a box on the steps of a police station in Seoul. I’ve always assumed my mother voluntarily left me, given the circumstances.

Kim Si Ja (1).jpgBut what were those circumstances, exactly? They are part of a story that faded away, like the note I imagined might have been pinned to my blanket, never to be read, only dreamed of.

From there I was put into an orphanage. In fact, that’s where I got my last name, Kim: it was the name of the head of the orphanage at the time. All of us babies were given his name. For the year I lived there, I didn’t thrive, and in fact, I barely survived, because I was in an impoverished institution within an impoverished country.  A wave of small pox swept through the cribs and most of the babies around me died. I wasn’t spared the disease—I’ve got the scars to prove it. Eventually I became so malnourished I couldn’t lift my head. At that point someone intervened and I was sent to live with a foster mother. I’ve been told that moving to her house was probably what saved my life.

I was 12 months old I was unable to sit, lift my head or track objects with my eyes.  While I may or may not have made attachments in the orphanage, I most certainly did when I lived in foster care. I started to learn Korean. Twelve months later I was adopted and taken from my foster home, the only one I had ever known. I was put on a plane to come to a new country, with new sounds, smells and sights.

I screamed during the entire flight from Seoul to San Francisco.

My parents were new at the parenting thing. I was their first and they didn’t expect me to scream when I was put in a bed, and only to calm down when someone slept beside me on the floor. I screamed when I drank milk (people didn’t know much about lactose intolerance, which is rampant among non-whites). I screamed whenever my parents left me in the house, whether they were feeding the horses, moving the watering hose, or picking up the mail. We had a floor to ceiling window in our living room and I would slam the glass and throw my head back and howl whenever they left, even if it was for just a minute.

It’s almost embarrassing how little doctors and parents knew about child development back in those days. How little they understood the deep need humans have to form attachments, and how important it is to do so at crucial points in our development. However, I think most of us instinctively understand that babies thrive with loving and consistent caregivers, and that when they lack sufficient care, the damage can be foundational, leading to effects that wind through one’s life, flaring up in unexpected ways.

You might look at me and think that being unable to form attachments early on didn’t screw me up too much. I’m educated, went to college and law school, have a close group of friends, have been married for decades, and even raised a fairly awesome kid.

Then you might think, maybe those kids—you know, the ones who have been separated from their parents at the border, the ones whose parents were seeking asylum—well, maybe they’ll be okay.

Maybe. But it’s more likely they won’t. It will depend on how their story ends—how long they are separated, if they are ever reunited with their parents, and what happens after. There are still about 500 families still separated, months after this story gained national attention.

It was after I had my own kid that the residual trauma of being abandoned and moved from place to place raised its ugly head. I could not let my daughter out of my sight. Granted, many parents are like that—it’s got to be an evolutionary protection—but for me there was no separation from my kid for months, even years. I felt driven to protect my child to an extent that seemed almost pathological in safe, pleasant Portland. Having experienced the ultimate danger as an infant, I was damaged.

But perhaps I’m not that unusual. Most parents have an unwavering instinct to protect their children. That’s why they pull them out of burning buildings, why they leave everything behind when bombs destroy their neighborhood, why they send their kids on ahead with a note and a home cooked lunch when they are in a dangerous lawlessness situation and they know they have no power to keep them safe. That’s why they risk their own lives to find asylum for their children. The Muslims in Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the battered women in Mexico, and the teenagers in El Salvador all know that staying still is more dangerous than anything they can imagine might happen if they leave.

Children are hurt every day, in every country. We know that. We live with that. But I think what resonates with Americans now is that current crises at the Mexican border is not the result of a natural disaster or another government. It’s happening on our watch, under our government, and it’s an issue of a difference of opinions. Opinions about who should be American and who shouldn’t. About which laws to enforce and which to ignore. About where empathy begins and morality ends. So many of us feel desperate to change this ongoing situation, but we sit by, jaded and hopeless.

But not all of us. There are those who cheer this on because this is what they wanted when they voted for Trump. They want that wall, they want America white and mono-cultured, and they believe stopping immigration at any cost is righteous. They are the heirs of those who slaughtered Native Americans, bought slaves, enforced Jim Crow laws and burned down black neighborhoods.

The children and their parents in the news today will live or they will die. But our souls, our dignity, our own freedom will be haunted and our legacy ever-tarnished if these ongoing separations continue.

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