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Sun, Jan. 26

Piacenza: A child’s mistreatment may end but is never erased

To a child, the person who meets her physical needs, whose arms are both protection and loving embrace, is the center of her life.

In those early years, the first seeds of experience are being planted, the eyes that meet hers with unconditional approval feed the first buds of self-esteem. Here begin the feelings of worth from which a confident adult personality grows. Loving care instills a basic trust essential to facing hardships and challenges in later life with hope rather than defeatism.

Imagine losing the love of your life suddenly and, as far as you know, irrevocably. Stabbing grief plunges you into deep melancholy. Everything in your life — what you eat, how you speak, when you play and when you sleep -- has revolved around this angel who has flown from you, swept away by a dark, furious force impossible for you to comprehend.

Instead of warm arms, you find yourself wrapped in a thin metallic blanket. You have no bed, and your room consists of a cement floor and chain-link walls. You are crowded in with many other kids and there is always someone crying.

But perhaps the worst thing is the fear. You have no idea what will happen next. The adults in charge give you food but their unsmiling faces and brusque manner leave you unsure of what else they might do.

Child welfare advocates are pressing border control agencies hard to reunite immigrant children with their relatives and in the meantime to meet their medical, nutritional, hygienic and basic comfort needs. Of course these essentials of humane treatment must be provided.

However, that won’t be the end of the suffering of detained children. Even if or when they are reunited with family members, the traumas they’ve endured will be deeply etched on their psyches. A protective callous of mistrust will grow over innocence too tender to withstand such unfeeling treatment. Wariness will blunt their enthusiasms and a cool distance will creep into their relationships.

Over the years, they may find support and strength to face these primary injuries and begin to heal them. But they will be subtly ambushed by the remnants of their formative experiences when they least expect it. As much as they may outwardly conquer their fears, the niggling doubts about their personal worth will continue to haunt them at vulnerable moments.

Mistreating children is the unconscionable act that keeps on giving long after the initial injustices. To permit and even purposely condone such behavior for the sake of political expediency is a particularly cruel form of short-sightedness. It not only imposes an all-encompassing present reality of grief and fear, but also hobbles faith in a welcoming future for years to come. Some may argue children are resilient and certainly the flexibility of youth helps them recover. But children don’t simply erase their experiences, they ingest them and they become part of who they are.

To treat the young based on whose loins they’ve sprung from is a relic of tribalism, of ancient competitions for the very basics of life. From his gilded and isolated life of the rich and famous, the president minimizes their poor treatment by comparing it to the grinding poverty desperate parents and children are escaping from. He’s turned his considerable marketing talents to promoting acceptance of the unacceptable. I don’t think we’re falling for it. I doubt even admirers of “winning” present isolationist victories can embrace such cynicism.

Americans know that to love and advocate for children is to protect the reservoir of their individual and our communal future.

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