Written Testimony to the Justice System Committee on Family Separation

New York City Council

Justice System Committee

New York City Council, General Welfare

Hearing on Family Separation in New York City

November 27, 2018

Written Testimony of The Bronx Defenders,

By Emma Ketteringham

Our Family Defense Practice has been in place since 2005 and represents parents in child protection and all of the related Family Court proceedings that arise out of an abuse or neglect case. Since New York City first funded institutional parent representation in 2007, we have represented more than 11,000 parents in the Bronx and helped thousands of children either safely remain at home or safely reunite with their families. Our multidisciplinary staff of more than 50 attorneys, social workers, and parent advocates intakes 1,000 to 1,500 new parents each year. During fiscal year 2018, we were assigned to represent 1,585 parents with approximately 3,500 children.


Last Spring, our nation witnessed the forced separation of 2,500 children from their parents on the US-Mexico border. In addition to seeing and hearing the brutal inhumanity, we also heard from many experts who explained the traumatic impact of the forcible separation of a child from his or her parent and the life-long physical and biological consequences. Dr. Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School warned that when children are forcibly separated from their parents…

“their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain. “The effect is catastrophic.  . . . There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

The American Pediatric Association issued a formal statement opposing family separation on the border announcing:

“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health.  In fact, highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short – and long-term health.  This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children.”

The harm was described as irreparable, causing children toxic stress, permanent emotional damage and long-lasting difficulty with learning, mood regulation, and the ability to make emotional and relational attachments. The systematic family separation of these children from their parents was the shocking culmination of a number of policy decisions by different administrations aimed at Mexicans, Central Americans, and other Latinx immigrants. 

In New York City, government officials do not intentionally inflict harm on children and their families to serve a political purpose. Rather, the child welfare system deliberately removes children from their homes over concerns for their safety and well being. The devastating consequences of family separation to a child, however, are the same no matter the reason. The New York Court of Appeals has recognized that foster care should be a last resort holding that “a child may be forcibly removed from his family only when that child is at imminent risk of serious harm”. Children often experience the physical separation from their families as rejection or loss and do not understand why it has occurred. Placement in foster care and subsequent placement changes affect children’s ability to build healthy attachments. It is well known that children exiting foster care face a host of negative life circumstances and outcomes. One recent study found that by age twenty-four, nearly sixty percent of former male foster children had been convicted of a crime, and by age 26, almost 75 percent of the young men had been incarcerated. Eighty-two percent had been arrested. Surveys have found that nearly one third of homeless youth and well over half of victims of child trafficking had experience in foster care. Even for children who are on the margin of placement, they are more likely to have better outcomes when they remain home with their families as opposed to in out of home care. In light of the law and the documented harm to children of family separation, it is the City of New York’s legal and moral imperative to ensure that proper safeguards are in place so that children are not separated from their families unnecessarily and that families have adequate legal representation and social work advocacy.

Read the full testimony here