“There is nothing I can imagine worse than not being able to hold your own child, comfort them when they have a bad dream, put a band-aid on a scratch, or kiss their tears away.” In consideration of the excruciating human toll that results from separating children from their parents at the U.S. southern border…
by: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott
The news that the U.S. Government has been, and continues to, forcibly take children from their parents at its southern border caused a flash-back to an unsettling traumatic event in my life thirty-years ago. My son Grant, who was four-years-old at the time, wanted to test his independence (with our approval) by exiting our hotel through the back door, while we left through the front door. It seemed simple enough, he’d go to the end of the hall, down the stairs, and out the back door while I checked us out and my husband, Bob, would meet him in the rear. However, when Bob reached our hotel’s back door, Grant wasn’t there. Immediately my husband and I became panicked. I began berating myself for being such a neglectful parent; I should have known he was too young to find his way out alone. My husband and I decided to separate as we searched for Grant, Bob retracing our steps through the front door and myself entering through the hotel’s rear. When we met again, neither of us had located Grant. By that point, I was beyond alarmed, and on the verge of hysteria. Frantically, we raced around the hotel, searching everywhere for our little Grant. We decided to separate again and walk the entire perimeter of the hotel before we called the police. Finally, we found Grant outside a side door, crying with fear and frustration because he couldn’t find us and couldn’t get back inside. I still cringe when I think of that horrific event. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if the three of us were separated for longer, or for good.
Today, as I agonized and contemplate the inhumane actions of my federal government in its unceasing incompetence at the U.S. border with Mexico, I think of a song I sang as a child in Sunday School:
Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world
During the 1940s, and 1950s, our high-pitched, joyous voices sang about Jesus’ love for all children. The song was inclusive regardless of country of origin, race, or religious beliefs. The value impressed on me at an early age was that every human was a child of God, whether they be the African-American children playing on the streets outside my aunt’s house in Minneapolis, or the Ojibwe children performing traditional dances at their cultural center near Mille Lacs Lake, or a Minnesota farm girl, of northern European heritage, like me. There was a comfort knowing all children are to be cherished.
I grew up knowing where my ancestors were born and the hardships that led them to leave their homes and families to emigrate to the United States. My mother often spoke to her parents and siblings in Swedish. I cherish the poem, The New Colossus, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It welcomed my grandfather as he came from Holland to America in 1907, an indentured servant because he couldn’t afford the fare to cross the Atlantic by steamship. My grandmother came from Sweden, with her mother, as a five-year-old child in 1884. She told me she was afraid of dying during the journey because when a passenger died, their body was dumped into the ocean.
Writer Jean-Michael Hauteville of the Handelsblatt Global compared the Trump administration’s taking of migrant children to the abduction of 400,000 Aryan-looking children throughout Eastern Europe and Norway by the SS. These children were stolen away to “assimilation” camps where they were “Germanized” and “robbed of their identities and eventually given up for adoption to loyal Nazi couples.” Seventy-six years later, those still alive continue to search for their real identities.
Taking children from their parents or guardians is a heinous act. Yoka Verdoner, a Jewish child separated from her family in The Netherlands to save her from the Nazis, describes the lifelong effect children experience as a result. Her younger brother tells of screaming for six weeks straight. They were placed with foster parents to protect them and Verdoner spent her life as an adult working with traumatized children. She says what is happening on the U.S. Southern border “is as evil and criminal” as what was done to children during WWII.
What is occurring is antithetical to the teachings I learned as a child. In the Bible it says that Jesus “took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’” Everyone who studies the New Testament knows that passage and the power of its message.
“Separation from a parent or caregiver” is one of the most common causes of childhood trauma. Child development experts say this separation will cause the children permanent emotional trauma. “It is unconscionable,” states Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., Director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
The story of Julio, aged 27, who fled El Salvador’s gang violence with his four-year-old son resonated with me. His son was taken from him in Texas by U.S. authorities and then whisked to a foster care facility in New York City. “I failed him,” said Julio, sobbing uncontrollably. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”
Reading about Julio reminded me of the Robert Burns poem, Man Was Made to Mourn, a Dirge, in which Burns ruefully points out human’s inhumanity to humankind.
Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
See yonder poor, o’erlabour’d wight,
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful, tho’ a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.
Ignoring the plight of a fellow human within one’s homeland or, even worse, denying them refuge is cruel enough. Taking their children, those helpless offspring, from them is callous, even sadistic
There is nothing I can imagine worse than not being able to hold your own child, comfort them when they have a bad dream, put a band-aid on a scratch, or kiss their tears away. Those few minutes, over thirty years ago, in the motel spent looking for my son are etched into my memory forever.
On October 22nd, 2018, I couldn’t find a current news report summarizing the number of children separated, reunited or left in U.S. custody as a result of the Trump administrations border policies. I sent an email request, as a citizen, to the Department of Homeland Security asking for current numbers. I’m still waiting for a response. Periodically news reports state that these children and their parents may never be reunited. I feel guilty and responsible, because this is my government, and I’m not doing all I can to insist they stop the abomination of traumatizing children and their parents and return every child to their family.