Colleen Lelli

On June 15 it was reported by Reuters that 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults at the U.S.-Mexico border between April 19 and May 31 because of the stricter border enforcement policies enacted by the Trump administration. As a result of this “zero tolerance” policy, parents were being criminally charged and therefore children were separated from their caregivers, the one constant in their young lives.

Trauma lasts a lifetime. As a result of a traumatic experience children can suffer into adulthood and suffer cognitively, emotionally and physically.

The patron saint of immigrants and first American saint, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, said “the impressions of childhood are never obliterated.” In my work researching the impact of trauma on children, this statement hangs heavily on those who have the responsibility and moral obligation to protect and serve our children.


When trauma is experienced, the impact on a child’s development is significant and negative, and the younger the child the greater the negative impact. Young children, those who were separated from their caregivers and/or subjected to “tender-age” shelters, are some of the most vulnerable.

While the treatment of these young children is certainly heartbreaking and inhumane, it also has long-lasting impacts and reunification does not guarantee that the effects of trauma will end.

The increasing awareness of the effects of trauma on the brain has offered great insight into the role trauma plays in childhood development. During extreme stress our bodies respond via a heightened state of alertness known as the flight, fight or freeze response. Children experiencing trauma will be on a heightened state of alertness at all times. This can cause dramatic consequences for their body.

In her book, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explains that the brain is so sensitive that elevated levels of stress hormones can significantly disrupt the development of the brain, which in return causes a weakened foundation in learning, mood, relational skills and aspects of executive functioning, even into adulthood.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has noted that trauma from the separation experienced by these young children could lead to alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, obesity and suicide.

Furthermore, other available research shows consistently increased levels of psychological issues among refugee children, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders.

While we know that supportive relationships will buffer or protect young children from the effects of trauma, what happens when a child was removed from their supportive adult as a result of government legislation?

What we now know as a result of trauma is that these young, innocent, vulnerable children need support and must be reunited quickly with their loved ones and family separation must not happen again.


Colleen Lelli, Ed.D., is director of the Jordan Center for Children of Trauma and Domestic Violence Education and is associate professor of education at Cabrini University. She is an expert who works with school districts, administrators, educators and advocates to provide critical insight into the intricacies of educating children who have witnessed trauma and domestic violence.