Is Splitting Families a Form of Psychological Torture?

Last year, my son got a call from his then four-year old daughter’s school because she was telling children on the school bus that Donald Trump was going to come and take them away from their parents. Our collective horror permeates our culture down to our youngest, for whom our president embodies the archetype of the boogeyman enacting our worst nightmare.

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Families Belong Together Rally, Washington, DC June 30,2018. Photo by Diane Perlman

Separation from loved ones is a primal fear for any age, but impacts the development of the young. While our policies of splitting families are described as child abuse, they seem more akin to psychological torture and a crime against humanity.

Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC

Mental health professionals are gravely concerned about the known effects of tearing children away from their parents who have made extraordinary sacrifices to protect them. This includes deportation of family members — leaving children and other loved ones bereft and traumatized, as well as the stress of living in constant fear of deportation. We are horrified, helplessly witnessing our government inflicting pain and psychologically damaging vulnerable people. Reckless endangerment and reckless indifference are policy, doing great harm and no good, qualifying as “political malpractice.”

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12 year old Leah, tearfully, eloquently addressing the June 30,2018 DC rally about living in constant fear that her loving mother, working as a nanny, who taught her to speak up, will be deported.

On the mall in DC on July 4, 2019, I overheard someone say, “They’re not spoiled like those kids in the detention camps.” This attests to the success of psychological manipulation and disinformation preying on people’s susceptibility and sense of grievance. Our policies show psychological ignorance, a profound lack of empathy, impaired feeling function and even sadistic tendencies. They demonstrate antisocial behavior, denying the basic humanity of others. Mean-spirited officials incite fear to whip up their political base and to deter others.

Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC

There is a consensus among therapists, researchers, practitioners, and expert witnesses about the savagery of these mindless, punitive policies. We have worked with and studied adults who have

suffered throughout life from harm done by early childhood separations and trauma. These unwise policies are creating a public health crisis.

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Photo by Diane Perlman

Studies of children of deployed military parents show a drop in grades, higher risks mental health and behavioral problems, drug use and suicide. And this is for children remaining in their homes, with other family members and friends, with no change in school, county, language, food, TV, and physical comforts. It is orders of magnitude more cataclysmic to be removed 100% from all that is familiar and to be subjected to total loss, profound grief, confusion, helplessness, hunger, thirst, crowding, uncleanliness, sickness, fear and human cruelty.

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Photo by Diane Perlman

It is urgent beyond measure to stop separations and deportations and to reunite these families immediately. Harm deepens every passing day. Young children do not have our concept of time or sense of permanence. For them the present is an eternity. Children go through stages of intense protest, followed by despair, detachment and psychic numbing.

Parents experience intolerable agony compounded by not knowing where their children are, how they are, or if and when they will see them again. Reunions after such separations are beset with a host of difficulties in recovering from trauma and rebuilding primary bonds.

Psychological impacts include the following:

* Erosion of Basic Trust. According to psychologist Erik Erikson developing an early sense of basic trust, the sense that the world is predictable and trustworthy, is the most important building block in one’s development. These separations undermine parents’ ability to fulfill their most important function, providing a foundation in trust for healthy development.

* Attachment Disorders. Extensive research highlights the critical importance of a secure attachment pattern to become a well-functioning adult who can contribute to society. Disruptions to secure attachment can cause lifelong suffering and impairments with negative consequences to society.

  • Trauma. Producing intolerable stress and psychic pain beyond one’s capacity to cope is causing irreparable harm, extreme prolonged tension, profound grief, excruciating anguish, fear, and moral outrage.
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Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC

* Toxic Stress and Pathology. These brutal separations, including infants and toddlers, produce a range of physiological and psychological pathologies affecting brain development and coping mechanisms leading to personality disorders, PTSD, behavior problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, relationship disorders, dissociative disorders, stress-related physiological disorders, cognitive disorders and more. The administration is condemning vulnerable people to a lifetime of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, health problems, cognitive deficits, impaired function, relationship problems and more.

* Retraumatization. For those who fled from danger and oppression, took risks, made treacherous journeys across borders and continents with children, left loved ones and their culture to reach safety to protect their children, this is a retraumatization which compounds the devastation. People are deprived of the comfort from their closest bonds we naturally seek in the face of any trauma. Shockingly, some enforce a policy of no hugging in which staff cannot comfort screaming children, and even forbidding a brother and sister to hug after being taken from their parents.

* Generational Transmission of Trauma. Effects of trauma tend to be passed down to future generations. It will affect the future parenting style of these children and the trauma can reverberate through future generations. The severity of the impact can be mitigated with safety, intensive, high quality trauma-informed therapy, detraumatization techniques, apologies, other healing and corrective life experiences and a good support system.

  • Vicarious Trauma. The phenomenon of “Vicarious Traumatization” refers to the effects experienced by counselors and others who witness the suffering, fear, trauma and all harm done to others as we watch these heart-wrenching separations in horror. We feel helpless and ashamed for the actions of our government.
Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC, Remembering the children who died in detention. Photo by Diane Perlman

* Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). PITS, observed and coined by Rachel MacNair, PhD past president of The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, refers to the traumatic effects on the perpetrators who are following orders to commit these cruel acts, including the law enforcement officers hearing peoples’ screams as they carry out their inhumane orders.

  • Societal Consequences. Those escaping danger, fear, and poverty, who would likely become grateful, loyal, and patriotic residents and contributing members of society, are betrayed. Justifying these cruel policies fuels mean-spirited elements of our culture that dehumanize immigrants and create a social norm in which it is acceptable to punish and traumatize innocent people because “the law is the law,” it’s their fault for coming, and that it is legitimate to harm people to deter others.
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Randi Weingarten, president American Federation of Teachers Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC Photo by Diane Perlman

* Unconscious Historical Legacy. Separating children from families has been a dark part of American history beginning with genocide of Native Americans, abduction of Africans for use as our slaves who were raped and separated from their children and families, to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, and deporting beloved family members, even under Obama.

Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

  • Punimania™ is a diagnostic term coined by me (Diane Perlman). This compulsion to punish is pathological and deserves a diagnosis. Punimania refers to the mindless pathological compulsion to punish when the punishment (1) does not address the true cause of the problem, (2) does not correct the problem, (3) causes suffering of innocent people over time and i and (4) causes harm even to the punisher, and (5) causes harm to the fabric and collective psyche of society.
35,000 marchers in DC pass Trump Towers on the way from the White House to the Department of Justice, chanting “Shame, Shame, Shame!” Families Belong Together Rally, Washington, DC June 30, 2018

* Psychological Torture (PT) Almerindo E. Ojeda, defines PT in What is Psychological Torture? as follows(

• Proposal: PT is the intentional infliction of suffering without resorting to direct physical violence.

• All instances of PT must satisfy four criteria :

1. Suffering

2. Infliction

3. Deliberateness

4. Lack of direct physical violence (indirect physical violence is always present with torture).

Categories of Psychological Torture

Isolation: solitary or quasi-solitary confinement.

Debilitation: food, water, and sleep deprivation; extreme temperatures

Spatiotemporal disorientation: confinement in small places, natural light denial

Sensory deprivation: hoods, goggles, gloves, deodorizing masks
Sensory assault: shouting, loud music, bright lights.

Desperation: indefinite detention, sense of futility.
Threats: of death or violence, to self or others, mock executions, witness torture.

Degradation: verbal, nudity, personal hygiene denial, overcrowding, contact with pests, or excrement, sexual, ethnic, religious.

Pharmacological manipulation: tranquilizers, hallucinogens.

Does splitting families and the experiences these vulnerable people are forced to endure qualify as psychological torture? You decide.

  • Our Obligation to treat to heal. Although these divided families are deeply scarred by this trauma, studies of trauma survivors show that appropriate, effective treatments, including techniques of detraumatization by qualified, compassionate, ethical professionals can help reduce the severity of lifelong symptoms and consequence, thus reducing the intergenerational transmission of trauma.
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Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC

We urge immediate reunification of families and the provision of safety, stability, and basic human needs. In addition to individual, family, and group therapy, collective healing will be supported by public recognition of this trauma, bearing witness, apology, some forms of restitution, emotional support and engagement in community life, and a variation of “truth and reconciliation” processes.

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Lights for Liberty Rally July 12, 2019 Lafayette Park DC

splitting 30 years ago, when George H. W. Bush accepted the presidential nomination he called upon us to become a “kinder, gentler nation.” For all of our sake, let us take heed.

Diane Perlman, PhD is a clinical and political psychologist, the US Convener of Transcend, International, former co-chair of Psychologists for Social Responsibility’s Task Force on Global Violence and Security, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and founding member of the Transcending Trauma Project, a former nursery school teacher, mother and grandmother.

Clinical & political psychologist, Transcend, Conflict Transformation, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Mediators Beyond Borders, UN Nuclear Conferences

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