Panel discusses health effects of family separations


Wu Caiyi | Staff Photographer

Experts, community members and students gathered in the Public Health building Friday for “Family Separations: Short and Long-term Effects,” a panel held in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month with a special focus on children in detainment centers at the border.

By Claudia Huggins, For The Pitt News

Even though the U.S.-Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles away, behavioral therapist Claudia Ardiles said at a Friday panel that the crisis of family separations, as well as the immigration crisis more generally, touches people locally — as close as 11 miles northwest of Oakland, at the Holy Family Institute in Emsworth.

“We actually do have a place here in Pittsburgh where some undocumented minors come to stay in group-home settings,” Ardiles said. “Also, we have kids who have been reunited with family members and are sent to Pittsburgh. Then, we have all of the children in immigrant families that worry about the future of their families daily.”

Experts, community members and students gathered in the Public Health building Friday for “Family Separations: Short and Long-term Effects,” a panel held in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. The group discussed how trauma can affect victims, with a special focus on children in detainment centers at the border and families who have been separated.

The panel of speakers included Ardiles, who works at UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics in Wexford, Pitt assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences Dr. Todd Bear, licensed social worker and bilingual therapist Daniela Garcia and former journalist Robin Mejia.

Ardiles immigrated from Argentina to the United States in 1993, and has worked with children and families “touched by emotional pain” for more than 20 years. She explained that her recent patients — many of whom have gone through these separations — led her to discuss the physical effects this type of trauma can have, such as loss of appetite, withdrawal or aggressive behavior.

But Ardiles said the separations have also brought out the best in Americans, some located right at UPMC. She mentioned Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco at UPMC Children’s Hospital who works with the Latino population at clinics with volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists, where children without health insurance can go and get the help they need.

Garcia took a clinical approach to explain the long-lasting effects of trauma, and how a lack of affection and touch can affect a child’s entire life.

“The reality is that covering basic needs is not enough for healthy development,” she said.

Using case studies from the 2006 bookThe Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce Perry, Garcia described what happens in the brain when trauma is inflicted. Orphans that do not receive adequate affection and attention have visibly smaller head and brain sizes, according to the book, proving that neglect and abuse can impede development in noticeable ways.

Garcia added that trauma has the ability to change how the victim thinks in the long run, even many years after traumatic events. After experiencing constant flood of stress hormones and hyperactivity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that causes a person’s “fight or flight” response, the victim’s body often doesn’t learn how to be and feel safe.

To speak more about the scientific angle of traumatic experiences and also explain the physical effects of trauma, Bear focused his presentation on childhood adversity and its short- and long-term impact on health.

He defined childhood adversity as a series of events — poverty, welfare, stranger assaults, neglect or sexual, physical and emotional abuse — that contribute to stress during childhood. To measure childhood adversity, the CDC administers the Adverse Childhood Experiences test. According to NPR, the higher the score, the higher the risk of health problems later on in life.

“If we removed adversity, we would see a reduction in smoking by 25%, cardiovascular disease in the population by 26%,” Bear said. “If we can provide nurturing and loving environments for our children, then we can prevent a lot of diseases.”

To offer a different perspective, Mejia expressed that while she didn’t have much to offer from a clinical perspective, she could share her personal experiences with separated families.

During her time reporting in El Salvador, after the civil war from 1980 to 1992 resulted in more than 1,000 cases of abducted children, Mejia — a current statistics and human resource program manager at Carnegie Mellon University — worked closely with Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos, or the Pro-Search Association of Missing Girls and Boys. During this time, she witnessed the efforts of the families searching for their missing children.

“Some of them were left in orphanages, but some of them were actually placed in adoption — a large number in the U.S. and western Europe,” Meija said. “They were sent to other families even though they had living, biological families that wanted them.”

Following the panel, Ayesha Godiwala, a first-year master’s in epidemiology student, asked during the Q&A session how to change the narrative when dealing with this kind of trauma and preventing future negative outcomes.

Garcia suggested that citizens should focus their efforts locally, and went on to list many organizations located in the City that work to address these issues, such as Gnecco’s practice.

“It can feel like such an insurmountable problem because we’re talking about thousands and thousands of kids. It’s overwhelming,” Garcia said. “Something that I think is helpful is just looking as locally as we can.”

Godiwala said she came away from the panel feeling that she could help to make a difference in her own community on this issue.

“I guess my main takeaway is that I can do something and I don’t have to be at that level of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the president of the United States,’” Godiwala said. “I think it’s really important for me to remember that I’m doing something just by being here and remember that I am able to do something.”