Center For Youth Wellness

Statement by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on Family Separation

Supporting and strengthening families is at the core of our work at the Center for Youth Wellness. The policy of separating children from their parents goes against everything we believe and everything the science tells us about building healthy, thriving, and resilient children, families and communities. Even if the executive order reverses this practice, it has already done so much harm.

When kids experience severely traumatic events like being forcibly separated from a parent or caregiver, the biological stress they experience can change their growing brains and bodies in ways that put their long-term health at risk. They can develop a “toxic stress response.” And it’s been proven to shorten lives – by as much as 20 years.

Science over the last few years helps us understand why: when kids experience trauma, their bodies produce high levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Children require the buffering care of a nurturing adult to regulate their stress response and help it function normally. Without this nurturing parent or caregiver, the biological stress response stays on, leading to changes in brain architecture, weakening of the immune system, and impairment of hormonal levels. Toxic stress can literally change a child’s DNA.

At the Center for Youth Wellness, we are working tirelessly to advance the science of how to heal the stress response after trauma. The existing evidence clearly demonstrates that safe, stable and nurturing relationships are healing for children. The government’s policy deprived traumatized children of the most powerful factors to mitigate the biological damage they were experiencing: their parents. As doctors, nurses, teachers, parents, caregivers, and advocates, we are tasked with protecting and championing health for children, no matter their place of birth.

Long after the news cycles have shifted, our work continues. Thank you for being a part of this important movement.

In gratitude,

Nadine Burke Harris, MD, MPH, FAAP
Founder and CEO, Center for Youth Wellness

Learn More About How Toxic Stress Affects Children:
The Science of Toxic Stress
How Trauma Impacts Health
How Parents Can Support Children During Adversity

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