By: Erin Dunn


Like many Americans, we have been horrified by recent reports of children being separated from their parents at U.S. border facilities.  In April and May alone, nearly 2000 children were forcibly separated from their caregivers. 

Such forced separations are not the first – nor last – major stressors these children will encounter.  In many cases, families are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in America.  Once separated from their parents, children are left in fenced cages at overcrowded facilities until placed in foster care homes.  These border facilities have been likened to prisons and World War II Japanese internment camps, overcrowded and populated with children who are crying with no adults to comfort them.

As scientists, we are deeply disturbed by these events.  Scientists have known for decades that when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolong adversity – or toxic stress – there are both short-and long-term consequences on that child’s health and development.  We know that toxic stress can impair brain development.  In our research, we have found that these negative effects are likely to be most harmful to the youngest children.

The scientific and medical communities are well-aware of the dangers of toxic stress.  Notably, national health-related organizations like the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association, have fiercely opposed the policy of separating children from their parents. 

Large organizations like these are not always quick to speak-up on policy matters, especially because it can take time for scientists to reach agreement on a given issue.  The fact then that these statements were issued so quickly and firmly speaks volumes about our consensus as a scientific community in opposing any policies that support the inhumane treatment of children.  As I noted in a recent article, these acts amount to child abuse.

But even with growing knowledge about the dangers of toxic stress, the implementation of lessons learned from science to promote policy changes have been slow.  As Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, recently noted in response to the new U.S. border policy: “There is so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.” 

Unfortunately, however, the zero-tolerance policies around immigration and child separation are just one of many examples highlighting the gaps that exist between “what scientists know” and “what policy-makers do.”

As research on the effects of toxic stress is more effectively communicated to a wider audience, as seen in recent articles and even in podcasts, we hope policy change will ensue.  Rather than ignoring the science that so clearly demonstrates the harmful effects of toxic stress on children, policy-makers need to enact changes that protect children – now and in the future.