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A Trauma Therapist On The Anguish Immigrant Families Feel When They're Separated

Craig Ruttle
Yeni Gonzalez, a Guatemalan mother who was separated from her three children at the U.S.-Mexico border, center, is embraced by volunteer Janey Pearl of Arizona during a news conference Tuesday, July 3, 2018 in New York.

At least 50 immigrant children under age 5 are expected to be reunited with their parents by Tuesday's court-ordered deadline for the Trump administration to reunify families forcibly separated at the border.

Jenifer Wolf Williams is a trauma therapist based in Richardson. In recent years, she's helped immigrants separated from their loved ones — from families applying for asylum to children who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Williams says families who've been separated likely won't start healing until after they're reunited. 

Interview Highlights: Jenifer Wolf Williams

On what children who've been separated from families are experiencing

Let me tell you a little bit about one girl who was in that position. I usually work with adults. One day, I had a little girl in my counseling office. If you can imagine, she is sitting in a chair that is far too big for her. Mostly I see the top of her head. When I'm asking questions, she's pretty quiet — maybe gives a whispered monosyllabic answer. Finally, she looks up at me and I just see tears. Her eyes are just filled with tears. She's trying to hold them there and they're just pooling in her eyes. Finally, she lets them spill.

She doesn't know where her dad is; he's somewhere in ICE detention and that is all she knows. She hasn't been able to connect with him. They left [their home country] because of threats to her life. These were parents protecting children, but here she is now separated from parents.

On what separation can do to parents

Often, when I talk to parents who no longer have access to their children, [who] don't know where their children are, they're suicidal. If they don't know whether they are going to be reconnected with their children, they don't know if they want to live.

I need to say too that this has been happening for a long time. Family separation isn't new; what is new is that deliberate infliction of family separation.

So it happens with refugee families — sometimes if they don't have the right paperwork to stay as a family unit. It happens all the time with asylum seekers because they may send one family member, one parent to cross the border first, and try to create the legal means to bring in the children and the mother; usually it's the father who will do this. They don't realize that it is going to take years before they can get an immigration hearing date, and so during that years-long separation my job is really difficult.

I do have access a lot of the time to those who are in waiting for their immigration hearings. It's difficult because I'm providing a trauma therapy for the initial trauma, which is usually a life-threatening situation in the home country. At the same time, there is this ongoing trauma of being separated from children who may still be in harm's way. The parent doesn't know whether the children are OK from day to day. They may not have good communication. How do we faciliate healing for someone from the original trauma when they're going through a new set of traumatic events — just by being here trying to get their family in.

On the challenges to mental recovery from family separations

The toughest thing is the fact that trauma is ongoing. So there is the initial trauma event, and then there is the years-long process of gaining the stability of knowing that you can be here, and you can stay — that takes many years. When I'm working with someone who has gone through life-threatening situations for themselves or their children, and now they are here working on trying to feel OK and heal, part of the job of a trauma therapist normally is to say, "Let's help you learn that you're safe now." If their children aren't safe now, they definitely aren't safe now.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.