Helping Traumatized Kids

It’s been a devastating summer for child migrants. Over 2,000 kids, some only toddlers, have been separated from their families at the border. With no easy way for these kids to be reunited with their families, experts worry that the trauma the kids are experiencing, be it in the court system or in foster care, is inflicting irreversible damage on their developing brains.
“We’re talking about immigrants who are coming out of situations [that are] already traumatic,” says Michèle Neuhaus, Director of the 0-5 Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative for the Child Center of New York. Neuhaus compares such a child to a “seed” that has been watered and nurtured before suddenly being abandoned. “Getting here was traumatic, but they had [someone] protecting them. But now that person is gone.”
Extreme childhood trauma, now called toxic stress, is not a new concept. It was first introduced in the 1980s by Dr. Vincent Felitti, who, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recruited over 17,000 patients to study obesity. The project, coined the ACEs Study, was a landmark in epidemiologic research, and showed that childhood trauma was linked to almost every major health problem in the U.S.
But its impact on children is only now under scrutiny since the border crisis intensified last month, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy toward migration, using the threat of parent-child separation to deter illegal border crossings.
Toxic stress at a young age can do irreparable damage to a child’s development. Research has shown that kids who experience trauma have a higher propensity for disease or depression. Other studies have found a correlation between stress and cancers, including skin and breast cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Over 1,200 pediatricians across the nation are implementing toxic stress therapy into their practices, according to Jane Stevens, founder of ACEs Connection, an online social and news network dedicated to raising awareness about adverse childhood experiences.
Neuhaus, whose work includes researching bonds between parents and young children, says that such bonds are essential in order for a child to fully develop.

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“Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through,” says child mental health expert Michèle Neuhaus.

“A lot of the trauma [these children are facing] is, what happens next? Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through. It’s a biological and an emotional bond,” she says.
Though the stress levels these children experience have been well-documented, there is hope that children who experience this trauma can recover from it, so long as the proper therapy is in place.
Stevens says that in order to properly address toxic stress, there needs to be systems in place that actually address the trauma — foremost being a safe environment with parents or a loving caregiver.
“The child needs to be in a safe home,” Stevens tells NationSwell. “When kids get separated from the parents, you understand that that’s extremely traumatic for child and parent.”
If the best way to address toxic stress in children is to put them in a safe environment with people who love them, what do you do when the kids are being subjected to forced separation and trauma, such as those at the center of the border crisis?
Giving children a chance to talk about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about it is key, Neuhaus says. “It helps [us] see how trauma affects [a kid’s] brain and how it affects the behaviors they see.” This storytelling, or building a “trauma narrative,” is an effective tool, she says, in allowing children to take ownership of their trauma and reframe it in an empowering way.
Etiony Aldarondo, an associate dean at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, created the Immigrant Children Affirmative Network, a booklet that immigrant children can create to tell their stories, along with a board game that helps those children navigate what will happen to them as undocumented migrants in the U.S.
When the source of toxic stress doesn’t directly involve a child’s parents, their role at the outset is still critical.
“Parents are making a lot of honest mistakes,” says Joseph Stachs, a social worker in New York who treats children using a type of therapy called “play” therapy. Speaking generally about the relationships children have with their parents, he says that most kids “have conflicted relationships with their parents.”
Which makes it imperative that parents or caregivers be involved and nurturing in helping treat traumatized children.
For migrant kids, though, that’s not an option, as many of the kids going through immigration courts are facing judges alone, without their parents or even a lawyer by their side. The only hope is that these children are placed with families that recognize the need for supporting kids that are enduring the trauma of family separation.
“Just like a scar will always be there after that accident, it doesn’t define your life,” Neuhaus says. “You can heal from trauma, but it doesn’t go away.”

Aid, and Agua, Along the Border

For the past 25 years, a humanitarian crisis has been quietly raging at the United States–Mexico border. Beginning in 1994, the U.S. implemented a policy of “prevention through deterrence” to stymie the flow of undocumented immigrants at traditional ports of entry. The thought was that by pushing migratory routes into harsher desert terrain, where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally would drop.
But the policy didn’t work as expected, and instead had an unintended consequence: mass death. In 2000, migrant deaths started to spike, jumping 34 percent from the year prior, according to U.S. Border Patrol. All told, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants have died on the treacherous journey since 1994.
When news of these deaths started making headlines in the late 1990s, inventor and scientist John Hunter decided to take action. In 2000, he founded a nonprofit, called Water Station.
“I just get sick and tired of people dying out here and all this yapping going on, and no one’s doing jack,” Hunter says.
Based in Escondido, California, Water Station was one of the earliest organized humanitarian efforts along the border. Hunter and his wife, Laura, lead a team of volunteers in building “water stations,” or 50-gallon drums filled with jugs of water, which are strategically placed in the Imperial Valley Desert where deaths have been recorded. Now 18 years into its mission, Water Station maintains about 125 stations throughout the deserts of eastern California.
Watch the video above to see how the Hunters’ work is helping to save lives in the harsh deserts along the border.

This video is the first in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project

Donald Trump’s call for a “big, beautiful wall” along our southern border hasn’t resonated in the West Texas city of El Paso. Already connected to Mexico by the world’s largest border metroplex, local officials want to further link El Paso to its sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Last January, they started laying tracks for a streetcar line that officials hope eventually will shuttle passengers between the two countries, as it had once done for most of the 20th century.
Notably, and rather unusually, the El Paso streetcar initiative gained steam as a public and performance art project. In 2011, black-and-white portraits of a smiling train conductor started popping up around town, sometimes accompanied by the phrase Sube al futuro: Go to the future. A few months later, a wheat-pasted mosaic on an abandoned brick building featured hundreds of locals’ faces; together, the composite formed an ad for a retro streetcar, which resembled the Art Deco-ish trolley that ran 63 miles between El Paso and Juarez until 1974. At that point, conceptual artist Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso native, introduced himself as the creative mind behind the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project.
In the five years since, an even odder confluence of art and life took place. The fictional ad campaign gave a fresh face to the public transit movement, which helped turn it into a multimillion-dollar construction reality (the first 4.8-mile section is set to open in 2018). Meanwhile, Svarzbein ran for office and now sits on the nine-member city council, which provides direction to the agency responsible for the El Paso’s transit projects.
“Border crossing is what defines us,” Svarzbein says of his city. “It’s in the best interest, for both El Paso and Juarez, to allow these people to cross over. They’re not doing it to take our jobs and our Medicaid, or whatever rhetoric is espoused. We understand our people crossing over symbolize the dreams of what this country has always been about.”
The son of an Argentine-born surgeon and a French-born nurse who moved to El Paso together in 1978, Svarzbein grew up accustomed to a border town’s cross-cultural influence. In high school, he and his friends regularly trekked next door to dine out at restaurants or take advantage of Mexico’s younger drinking age at nightclubs.
But shortly after Svarzbein moved away to attend Franklin & Marshall College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, the tie between the sister cities was snipped. In 2006, the Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched an all-out assault against the country’s powerful drug cartels, an opening salvo that led to turf wars in Juarez and chaos along the border. To respond to the violence, Svarzbein began looking for a way to remind residents of both countries of the connections they shared, despite the brutality.
Researching symbols of unity, he came across pictures of El Paso’s old trolley line. For his master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he decided to create a series of fake ads for the tram’s revival. Both conceptual and commercial, a historical documentary and a performance piece, the art project blurred genres — not unlike how living on the border can entwine residents’ identities.
In 2012, Svarzbein’s fictional vision for a revitalized streetcar system started to become reality when he discovered the city planned on selling the old, rusting trolleys to San Francisco. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” Svarzbein recalls. He began lobbying city officials to apportion part of a quality-of-life bond to reviving the streetcar, and he gathered over 1,800 signatures. The outpouring of support eventually won a $97 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation.
When the first phase opens, the trolley will make 27 stops along a route from the University of Texas El Paso to the city’s downtown. It’s expected to pick up about 1,480 riders daily, topping 540,000 trips a year. The line will use six vintage Presidents’ Conference Committee cars, a tram design that became popular in 1936, around the time FDR was reelected for a third term; each is being refurbished with Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. “For some people, it taps into nostalgia. They remember when they were kids, riding the streetcar with their abuela, when it was easier to go into Mexico,” Svarzbein says.
The public-works project is a nod to the city’s history, but Svarzbein hopes that it will also create new opportunities on both sides of the border. “We have the ability in this region to not just design an idea, but to build it,” he says. “We need to make sure that people and businesses are able to cross the border in an efficient and safe way.”
That, after all, is the promise of an international streetcar, he adds, especially in a time where inflamed political rhetoric paints the US-Mexico border as an area in need of armed patrols, rather than more ports of entry. “What much of the country doesn’t understand — and what we understand all too well being in these twin cities — is that border security is economic security,” Svarzbein argues. “Providing jobs are how you make this area safe. Jobs are how the cartels don’t have as much power. Jobs are how you grow this region.”

An earlier version of this story suggested Svarsbein was the sole instigator of the project, when he was actually one of several people advocating for it, and that the cartel-related violence in Juarez had reached across the border. We regret the errors.

Homepage photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/