An MGH psychiatrist recently served as an expert witness in a hearing in Boston that made national headlines. The case centered around a 35-year-old woman from Brazil who was separated from her 9-year-old son after being detained at the Mexican border in Arizona earlier this year as part of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for people who enter the U.S. illegally.

Lawyers stepped in to help mount a case against this policy and assist parents separated from their children, including this mother who sued the federal government, arguing the policy placed unreasonable roadblocks in her path to reuniting with her child. Gene Beresin, MD, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at MGH, testified during the hearing, citing a host of psychiatric concerns for children who experience traumatic events such as parental separation.

“When children are separated from parents, they typically experience high levels of anxiety and distress, which impair the trajectories of otherwise healthy children,” says Beresin. “Such children are at high risk for anxiety disorders, such as extreme worry or panic attacks. They are also at risk of mood disorders which can last a lifetime.”

After an emergency hearing, the government released the woman’s son, 45 days after being detained, from a Texas facility. Both are awaiting asylum hearings in Boston.

“Children who find themselves in new, frightening situations, do best when they are close to loving parents, whom they view as safe, familiar and protective,” says Beresin. “We all do best, especially in dire circumstances, when we are connected to family members.” 

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