Donald Trump on Wednesday promised to sign an executive order reversing his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. But child health experts say the psychological damage has already been done.
More than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since May after crossing the southern U.S. border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. And Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the effects of such separation could impact the children for a long time.
“The longer the time of separation from that parent and the younger the child is, the more devastating it is,” Kraft tells PEOPLE, noting that such stressful circumstances can lead to poor brain development. “They go on not to develop their speech, not to be able to learn or bond socially or emotionally with another human being.”
She continues: “For young children to be without their parents and to be continuing to keep on red alert with these stress hormones, and to know this is going to inhibit their development and disrupt their lives, to me that is child abuse.”
Photos of the ordeal showed young children crying and standing with somber expressions as they sought safety. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that officials have set up at least three so-called “tender age” shelters to hold babies and toddlers who have been forcibly separated from their parents.
Kraft says she recently visited one of the small shelters in Texas, and found a “homey” environment with cribs, toys and books. However, she notes, there were no parents around.
“If you’ve ever been to a toddler room in a child care center, there’s action everywhere, kids are laughing and they’re running and they’re playing. There was none of that in this room,” Kraft tells PEOPLE. “The children in there were quiet. Some were playing with toys. Some were just looking at us. One little girl in the center of the room was just sobbing and wailing and beating her little fists on a play mat.”
She adds: “There was a staffer next to her trying to give her toys and trying to give her books but this child was just not responding. We were told the staff are not allowed to pick up the children and hold them. They are not allowed to comfort them.”
She says that no matter how nice the conditions are, “if you separate a child from that parent, you are still doing harm.” She says the trauma of such a separation leads to the “tantrums, the throwing things,” she witnessed at the facility.
“When you look at behaviors in general, externalizing behaviors are much more worrisome, and you don’t think about the kids sitting there suffering silently. And that really paints a picture of what this trauma does to kids,” Kraft tells PEOPLE.
Luis Zayas, a psychiatry professor at University of Texas, told ABC News that the children are likely experiencing what mental health experts call “soul murder. This is the destruction of a person’s love of life, which can happen as a result of physical abuse and the physical violence of a child being separated from their parents.
“Two of the most damaging childhood adversities are loss of the attachment bond with the parents and childhood physical and sexual abuse,” Zayaz said. “If you want to damage someone permanently, expose him or her to one or both of these traumas.”
The Trump administration has faced overwhelming backlash due to the policy. Celebrities have spoken out against the mandate, and many have taken to the streets in protest. Thus, on Wednesday, Trump declared: “We’re going to keep families together.”
Trump has promised to sign the reversing order before leaving the White House Wednesday afternoon for a political rally in Minnesota.
For information on how to help defend the legal rights of detained immigrants, check out The Florence Project.