Early childhood and human development research provides advice about separating children from their caregivers

U.S. Border Patrol agents conduct intake of border crossers at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, Sunday, June 17, 2018.

As pressure mounts on federal officials to reverse a policy of separating children from parents crossing the U.S. border, University of North Texas Associate Professor Wendy Middlemiss says that, from the perspective of research, there is no way this separation could be safe.

“When separating parents and children at these early ages, we place each child at risk. We, in essence, terrorize the child,” Middlemiss said.Wendy Middlemiss

Middlemiss, who works in the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education UNT, said separation from parents and primary caregivers is difficult for all children; however, the experience of and risks from separation differ depending on age and the child’s individual needs and characteristics.

She notes that for children younger than 1 year of age and even those in their second year, separation from their parents and primary caregivers can be devastating — impacting children’s social, emotional, and physical well-being. At these young ages, infants and children are developing their sense of whether their environment is one where they have support and care. 

"In the ideal setting, infants and children learn that their needs will be met by someone they have come to see as a secure resource for support and care—generally their primary caregiver. When they are hungry, scared, cold—really any need or experience—they rely on their primary caregiver to provide support or share in their experience,” Middlemiss said.

Cynthia Frosch, assistant professor in the Department of Education Psychology, cites a recent report from the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health titled “What about the Babies? A Plea to Stop Separating Infants and Toddler from their Parents/Guardians When Seeking Safety at the Border.” In the report, the Alliance states that “its leadership firmly opposes separating very young immigrant children from their parents or guardians. When separated from their parents or caregivers, babies experience stress that is significantly toxic to their wellbeing.”Cyntia Frosch

Frosch also notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that separation of a parent or primary caregiver from his or her children should never occur unless there are concerns for the safety of the child at the hand of the parent.

“What is most striking to me, perhaps, is the fact that researchers frequently use a separation-reunion procedure known as the Strange Situation Procedure to assess the quality of the emotional bond, or attachment, between very young children and their parents,” Frosch said.

Those separations last no more than 3 minutes but even they are distressing to infants and toddlers.

“So through an attachment lens, if 3 minutes of separation is deemed long enough to stress or tax the caregiving system for infants and toddlers, what impact might 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months have on the child’s sense of security?” Frosch said, “The sense of security that children gain from receiving sensitive, responsive caregiving is critical to effective emotion regulation and healthy brain development.”

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released figured showing that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their primary caregivers under the current zero-tolerance policy. DallasNews.com reported Tuesday that in response to the separation of parents and children along Texas’ southern border, outgoing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to rescind the policy.

“I know that members of Congress from both parties have proposed various ways to address this issue in the forms of legislation, and while I applaud their attention to the problem, I also know that congressional action often does not come quickly,” Straus wrote. “In order to at least begin addressing this issue, there is no need to wait for Congress to act. That's why I respectfully ask that you move immediately to rescind the policy that General Sessions announced in April and any other policies that have led to an increase in family separations at the border.”

While many are calling for a change to the policy, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said it is necessary to combat a growing number of traffickers using children to cross the border.

According to a report in The Washington Post on Monday, the Department of Homeland Security reported there were 46 cases of fraud — “individuals using minors to pose as fake family units” — in fiscal 2017. In the first five months of 2018, there were 191 cases. The report also showed there were 75,622 family units apprehended at the border in fiscal 2017, and 31,102 in the first five months of this fiscal year.

Research also shows children separated from their parents may suffer long-term effects on their ability to learn. Middlemiss notes that aside from the pragmatic element that the children are not in school and may not speak English, there are implications not just at the curriculum level.

“To learn requires many different capacities. Children need to be able to attend, need to be able to sleep and retain information. These are placed in jeopardy when children experience this separation and the associated stress and uncertainty,” Middlemiss said.

She said children separated from their primary caregivers also will have special needs that may not be getting met.

“Comfort, care, soft voices, kind words, safety, meeting of physical needs, quiet, calm… all of which, based on what has been reported, are absent for children separated from their parents. Assurances they will be reunited with their parents, discussions of what will happen and how they will be kept healthy and safe… someone with whom to talk about their fears,” Middlemiss said.

Middlemiss also said there is another side to the story that isn’t getting much attention, and that is the parents.

“Most of what is reported is about how parents have placed their children at risk. No parent is going to readily place their child at risk unless that risk is an outcome of trying to protect them from something that is far more threatening,” Middlemiss said.

She said those parents are also in uncertain places and are devastated by not knowing if their children are safe, where they are and if they are being cared for.

“This is an untenable position for a parent. It is similar to the experience of parents whose children have been abducted or are missing,” Middlemiss said.

She said that the parents also need to be cared for and that the first step is to leave families together.

“Doing otherwise is inhumane. However, in regard to the questions about the impact of separation — the costs to be paid socially, emotionally, and on a community and global level are nearly without bounds,” Middlemiss said.

Adventures in Autism Intervention and Research Conference

Saturday, July 28, 2018 - 8:30am to 4:30pm
University of North Texas - Gateway Center

10th Annual conference for educators, professionals, researchers and parents, hosted by the UNT Kristin Farmer Autism Center

  • Discover the latest in autism research, intervention and therapies from knowledgeable experts

  • Network with hundreds of parents and professionals from the autism community.

Renowned Keynote Speakers and 20+ Presentations

Keynote Addresses by Dr. Fred R. Volkmar, MD, Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology at Yale University, and Dr. Mark F. O'Reilly, PhD, Audrey Rogers Myers Centennial Professor in Education, Professor of Special Education, and Chair of the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Topics include:

  • "Autism in 2018 – What we do and don’t know”
  • "Autism as a Social Learning Disorder"
  • "Teaching communication skills to persons with ASD using augmentative and alternative communication"
  • "Behavior Analysts Working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families: A Conversation"
  • - more than 20 total presentations

Detailed information is available on the conference website.

UNT graduate student named 2018 National Board for Certified Counselors Minority Fellow

Charmaine ConnerUniversity of North Texas graduate student Charmaine Conner has been selected as a 2018 National Board for Certified Counselors Minority Fellow.

Conner, a doctorate student in the College of Education’s Department of Counseling and Higher Education, will receive a $20,000 stipend and attend the NBCC Foundation Bridging the Gap Symposium in May in Washington, D.C.

“This award means I can carry out my dissertation without worry and that is so meaningful to me,” she said.

Conner, who is studying for her doctorate in counseling, will conduct her dissertation on the effects of child-centered play therapy on black children who are transracially adopted ─ that is adopted by non-black parents.

Natalya Lindo, associate professor and counseling program coordinator in the College of Education, and Conner’s research mentor, said she has observed firsthand her students’ hard work and dedication.

“Given the importance of developing the relationship between adoptive parent and child, this research has the potential to inform parent-child relationship research, as well as expand on research related to transracial adoption,” Lindo said.

Conner said she also hopes to use her fellowship to visit Uganda or Ghana and learn about mental health practices there.

“There are a lot of children from those countries who are internationally transracially adopted, so I want to see the cultural traditions that exist,” she said. “I have been around children who have been adopted all of my life and I want to be a positive role model for them.” 

UNT Higher Education grad candidates, alum to receive research grant

University of North Texas Higher Education Program alumna Catherine Olivares and doctoral candidates Nick Tapia-Fuselier and Kelsey Kunkle were recently recognized for receiving a $1,000 research grant for their proposed study involving undocumented students.

Master’s student Shelby Todd also represented UNT’s College of Education during the June 10-13 NASPA Region III Summer Symposium in New Orleans. Todd serves as the Graduate Student Representative on the NASPA Region 3 Board. She was active in this role during the Symposium by serving on a panel during Pathways to the Profession Pre-Conference and by coordinating a graduate student lunch.

Tapia-Fuselier, Kunkle, and Olivares will use the grant for their proposed study — Investigating Student Affairs Professionals’ Knowledge, Awareness, and Skills in Supporting Undocumented/DACAmented Students.

NASPA, formerly the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, is the leading association for the advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession. Its work provides high-quality professional development, advocacy, and research for 15,000 members in all 50 states, 25 countries, and eight U.S. territories.

The Higher Education Program is part of UNT’s College of Education. Its mission is to improve education and promote human development by providing learners with academic experiences and diverse perspectives which challenge their creativity and intellect and integrate knowledge, professional competence, experience, and imagination to develop researchers and practitioners who serve as effective leaders in institutions of higher education.

Todd and Tapia-Fuselier
Photo: Shelby Todd, left, and Nick Tapia-Fuselier attend the NASPA Region III Summer Symposium in New Orleans.

COE Faculty, Students Participate in 8th Cross-Border Conference

2018 Jalisco ConferenceIn May 2018 UNT faculty and doctoral students participated in the 8th Conference on Education and Culture co-hosted by UNT and the Secretariat of Education of the State of Jalisco, Mexico. The three-day conference, held at the Escuela Normal de Educadoras de Arandas in the city of Arandas, had “Educar sin Fronteras/Educate Without Borders” as its theme. Dean Randy Bomer of the UNT College of Education gave the keynote address titled “Education with a View of the Borderland.”

During the visit to Jalisco, the 12-member delegation also participated in meetings and events in Guadalajara, the state capital. These included a meeting with Francisco de Jesús Ayon López, Secretary of Education of the State of Jalisco, Teodomiro Pelayo Gómez, 
State Coordinator for the Preparation of Teachers, and other officials at the Secretariat of Education Headquarters as well as visits to the Federal Elementary School “Lazaro Cardenas del Rio” and the Subire Business School. While in Jalisco, several members of the delegation also collaborated with Jalisco colleagues on research projects focused on teacher preparation, transnational youth, and educational leadership. Joining the group was UNT Professor Emeritus Ron Wilhelm, who now leads initiatives for the Organization for the Development of Indigenous Maya in Guatemala.

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