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Working with Parents and Children Separated at the Border: Examining the Impact of the Zero Tolerance Policy and beyond


The crisis of family separation caused by Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy (ZTP) on the southern border has focused the nation’s attention and provoked public uproar due to the violation of basic rights and the expected negative impact on children and parents. There is decades’ worth of research documenting the damage of separating children from their parents in a wide diversity of circumstances and for a wide variety of reasons. There is also ample research evidence of the impact of any form of childhood trauma and consequent disruptions in development, cognitive impairments, and health problems through adulthood. However, there is no first-hand documentation published of how these children and families specifically experienced separation at the border and the effects it is having on them to date. The present article first provides an overview of the historical and socio-political context of family separation policies in the US, and a thorough description of how ZTP was implemented in actuality. Second, this article offers a review of the literature on the impact of family separation on children and parents in diverse contexts. Third, we describe direct clinical experiences with these children and parents receiving services at the Terra Firma program in the Bronx community in New York. Finally, this article delineates important recommendations for policy makers, service providers, and the community as a whole.

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  1. 1.

    1 The term “unaccompanied alien child” means a child who— (A) has no lawful immigration status in the US; (B) has not attained 18 years of age; and (C) with respect to whom— (i) there is no parent or legal guardian in the US; or (ii) no parent or legal guardian in the US is available to provide care and physical custody (6 U.S.C. § 279(g) 2012).

  2. 2.

    2 From 17,775 in FY2011 to 41,890 in FY2013, and to 47,017 in just the first half of FY 2014.


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Correspondence to Cristina Muñiz de la Peña.

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de la Peña, C.M., Pineda, L. & Punsky, B. Working with Parents and Children Separated at the Border: Examining the Impact of the Zero Tolerance Policy and beyond. Journ Child Adol Trauma 12, 153–164 (2019).

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  • Parent-child separation
  • Children
  • Refugee
  • Immigration
  • Attachment
  • Unaccompanied
  • Trauma
  • Mental health
  • Zero tolerance policy