Child Development

Can We Bend the Arc Toward Justice?

By: Kimberly Martini-Carvell

Yes, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Whether the author of this sentiment is Theodore Parker, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., or Barack Obama, it has always comforted me in times of national and political unrest and upheaval. I use this quote to ground myself in the fact that this is but one moment in time, and that what lies ahead, much farther than I or my children can see or know, is a just society.

However, with the growing controversy surrounding immigrant children being removed from their parents at our borders, I can no longer stay in this personal and professional space of “playing the long game” or being content in assuming that “eventually everything will be okay.” The sense of security we reap now in believing in the eventual arc towards justice may prove to have gravely insurmountable effects later. The unintended consequences may well end up too big for our collective to achieve the justice it seeks. It seems clear to me that innocent immigrant children are now bearing the brunt of my willingness to place hope on the long moral arc of history.

The science is there. We know that prolonged activation of the stress response in young children changes the architecture of the developing brain and can negatively impact lifelong physical and mental health. It is this very impetus that compels the Help Me Grow National Affiliate Network’s mission of advancing child development, creating early childhood systems that identify developmental concerns early, and providing universal access to coordinated community programs and services. One of the most effective strategies we know to prevent lifelong damage to young children’s healthy development is to support parents in having a stable, responsive and supportive relationship with their child. The evidence is great. The facts are indisputable.

Flying in the face of these well-evidenced facts, the Trump administration stated on June 15, 2018, that it had separated 1,995 children from parents facing criminal prosecution for unlawfully crossing the border while fleeing unsafe and perilous environments in their countries of origin. Since then, this number has risen to virtually 2,300 children, many in the most critical period of their growth and development – infancy and toddlerhood.

The Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have led the largest investigations and follow-up of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. This research tells us that adverse childhood experiences have long-term impacts on health, wealth, and well-being. Nadine Burke Harris’s work leading the Center for Youth Wellness, translating this science into child health care practices, unequivocally concludes, “The more ACEs a child is exposed to, the higher the risk of developing chronic illnesses. In children, exposure to ACEs can increase likelihood of chronic diseases such as asthma. In adults, exposure to ACEs dramatically increases the likelihood of seven out of 10 leading adult causes of death including heart disease and cancer.”

Zero to Three, National Institute for Children’s Health Quality, Centering Healthcare Institute, PolicyLab, CLASP, Center on the Developing Child, Center for Children’s Advocacy, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all made compelling official statements, calling for the Trump Administration and Congress to acknowledge the facts and accept responsibility for the immediate harm and lifelong consequences that we know results from a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

On June 20, 2018 an executive order was signed that ends any new separations of children and their parents at our southernmost borders, but indefinitely confines them together in detention camps. For those children who have already been separated from their parents, there is no commitment or proposed process to reunite them. It is clear that our collective advocacy on behalf of vulnerable families and young children has made its way to this administration and, indeed, has pushed the President to step back in these harmful policies. We should be encouraged by this. Our resounding and unified voice has made a difference. But we are certainly not done, as this executive order does not replace family separation with humane policy or altruism of any kind.

These are the moments when the arc feels so long. We should be emboldened by knowing that when loud enough, we are heard, and when unified, we can effectuate change. It is time now to recommit to our convictions and continue our resistance. In these moments I remind myself that the work to advance the science of child development, identify and mitigate adverse child experiences, build comprehensive community solutions, and rally together to advocate for compassionate policy is full of mechanisms by which we collectively bend the arc towards justice.

Kimberly Martini-Carvell is the executive director of the Help Me Grow National Center which is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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