Lieberman: ‘Zero tolerance policy’ can inflict untreated trauma

During the last two weeks, I am haunted by the imagine of children, being ripped away from their parents.

The administration named this practice a “Zero Tolerance Policy” to deterring immigration. I am reminded of another group of refugees who were separated from their families.

In 2002, I was living in New York City, where I was working as a social worker. I worked with Jewish Holocaust survivors in Bronx, N.Y. My clients were from Eastern Europe, Poland and Hungary.

Wendy Lieberman

My clients were children and young adults when the Nazi party rose to power. My clients survived by hiding, passing as gentiles and fighting as partisans. Most of them were sent to the Nazis concentration camps. After the war, their trauma continued as they learned about the loss of their families and their homes.

They were discouraged from talking about the war. It was believed by not talking about it, it would simply go away.

Unfortunately, my clients could not put their horrific experiences into a neat little box.

They suffered from untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They had classic PTSD symptoms: depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, and suicidal ideation. My clients showed me, untreated trauma has devastating consequences.

We watched helplessly as Maximo, received radiation, chemotherapy and as his body declined and he died. I naively believed if I got the boys a lot of counseling, it would speed up their grief and decrease their pain.

I signed them up for bereavement counseling and grief camp. I had them matched with a “Big Brother” through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization.

ICE agents are not psychologists. Their job was never meant to care for migrant children. They are ill equipped for this role.

A grief therapist told me, children experience and process their grief differently at each developmental stage. Many of the detained children are less than 5 years old. My youngest son was also 5 years old when his father died.

A 5-year-old child, he has no understanding of permanence. My son continues to have separation anxiety.

I have never lived in Central America. I have never faced violence on a daily basis. Most of these children have seen a family member murdered.

There are no police to protect them, no judicial system to prosecute the perpetrators. It would be irresponsible for a parent to leave their children behind.

My children and I watched helplessly as my husband died. It was the most painful experience of our lives. I cannot imagine the horror these children have witnessed.

The detention centers are operated by for-profit companies. The cost of housing and feeding immigrants is prohibitive. It is also an inordinate cost to reunite families. Families are being asked to pay $1,000 to have children escorted and reunited with their families. It behooves our government to streamline these costs and simplify the reunification process.

ZTP will not discourage migration. A person with nothing to lose, is not deterred by obstacles.

Families being detained together, is just another type of imprisonment. It is also unacceptable. It is not true that people are pouring over the border into our country. In fact, the U.S. has significantly decreased the number of immigrants, and asylum seekers. There are cases of “criminals” coming into the United States but they are a minority.

I return to my experience working with Holocaust survivors. The Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin.” They systematically dehumanized Jewish people. By dehumanizing groups of people, it allows others to rationalize treating groups of people as sub-human.

By viewing others as “sub-human” it allows others to justify behaving in a hateful manner.

We cannot be complicit in these frightening times. Our elected officials must be pressured to find a rational solution. We have to do better.

We are not going to Make America Great Again by scaring and traumatizing children. We have to keep the pressure on our elected officials, to find and enact a rational solution. Again, we can be a nation of laws without having to check our humanity at the door, at the wall we are intent on building.

Editor’s Note: Wendy Lieberman is a resident of Scottsdale.

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