Most parents or caregivers have experienced the visceral reaction to hearing children cry out in distress.
You feel a weight drop in your stomach, your chest tightens, and your breath gets sharp. In that moment, you would do anything to soothe them. Most parents are able to, whether it's swooping in with a hug, a comforting word, or a kiss on a teary cheek. But for those children who have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, all parents in Canada can do is watch the footage in despair.
"You just want to hold your kids more tightly than usual, and you want to protect them more than usual," Dr. Mahli Brindamour, a pediatrician in Saskatoon, a member of the Caring for Kids New to Canada task force with the Canadian Paediatric Society, and a mother, told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview.
"Of course as a pediatrician, as a mother, but also as a human being, this comes and gets us at our hearts and at what makes us human."
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) has been vocal in its condemnation of the U.S. policy of separating child migrants from their parents and detaining them at the U.S.-Mexico border. On Twitter, CPS has repeatedly said separating children from their parents can cause "immediate and long-lasting harm."
Previously, CPS — which represents 3,300 pediatricians, pediatric subspecialists and other child health professionals across Canada — has spoken out against the immigration detention of children on Canadian soil, explaining in a joint statement that children held in detention suffer extreme distress.
Canadian pediatricians agree that separating #children from loving parents can cause immediate and lasting harm. Many want to know what they can do. Here are some ideas: https://t.co/kGqEhnaOsb via @slate#KeepFamiliesTogether#ProtectFamilies— CdnPaediatricSociety (@CanPaedSociety) June 19, 2018
This week, the society threw its support to the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care's call to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement — an agreement between the U.S. and Canada that states people who make a refugee claim have to make it in the first country in which they arrive.
"Because children are being separated from their parents at the border and also because they are being put in detention, then the U.S. cannot be seen as a safe country for refugees," Brindamour explained.
Even after U.S. President Donald Trump backed down Wednesday and signed an executive order to end the separation policy, "they would still be putting children in detention for an indeterminate amount of time, which we are also very strongly against," she said.
"Absolutely" akin to child abuse
Detention and family separation are both extremely harmful for children, Brindamour said, and can lead to mental and physical health issues, even influencing a child's developing mind and cognition. The effects can last a lifetime, she added.
"Children who are not within reach of their parent's or primary caregiver's loving arms of course are extremely distressed, they develop fear and extreme intense agitation, and that can lead to significant mental health issues that eventually can last for a very long time," Brindamour said.
Adverse childhood events such as being detained can also increase the likelihood of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, she said.
The editors of Pediatrics are providing open access to all articles describing the short & long-term outcomes of toxic stress in order to "convince those responsible for creating this adverse set of circumstances to stop the separation of immigrant children from their families" https://t.co/oM4iWsYaOK— Rebecca Bell, MD (@RebeccaBellMD) June 20, 2018
Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recently told CNN that the U.S. policy was "nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse," and Brindamour said she "absolutely" agrees.
"Children are trying to reach safety with their parents or with their caregiver, and potentially have already been traumatized in their earlier life prior to trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and separating them from their parents is adding to their trauma, and I would agree that this is absolutely government-sanctioned child abuse," Brindamour said.
"Couldn't even prepare me for the sobbing ..."
Other Canadian doctors and parents have spoken out about the heartbreak and helplessness they feel after seeing footage of children who have been separated from their families, and about their concerns over children being held in detention centres.
I have children and I treat children; I hear crying all day long but that couldn't even prepare me for the sobbing I heard on audio of young children crying for their separated parents .@CanPaedSociety has condemned this inhumanity. It's time @JustinTrudeau@CDNMinHealth to speak https://t.co/UMvG1oHEaY— Rick MacDonald MD ,🚴♂️👨🏼⚕️ (@Kidsdoc1Rick) June 18, 2018
Pediatrician Rick MacDonald tweeted that, even though he has children and treats children (and hears crying "all day long"), "that couldn't even prepare me for the sobbing I heard on audio of young children crying for their separated parents."
"Detaining children indefinitely with their parents is too small an improvement," said Toronto clinician investigator Dr. Melanie Penner.
Detaining children indefinitely with their parents is too small an improvement. Impacts on child development will still be profound. Hoping @CanPaedSociety keeps up their advocacy. Reunification efforts also need to be monitored. #KeepFamiliesTogether#WorldRefugeeDay— Dr. Melanie Penner (@drmelpenner) June 20, 2018
And Ottawa pediatrician Dr. Chuck Hui told CTV News he was concerned the children being detained in the U.S. weren't being kept in a safe situation.
Brindamour said the events unfolding in the U.S. has affected her both as a pediatrician who has worked with refugee and immigrant children, and as a mother.
"I feel lucky that I'm safe at home with my kids, and my kids are safe and well-fed and well-taken care of with people that love them, and who they love."