Migrant child crisis reminds us how critical parents are

By: Meg Booth

Children need loving, stable adults to succeed in life. Period, plain and simple. I don’t want to minimize the complexities of immigration policy, politics, human behavior or even our expertise in oral health. But when it comes down to it, children need their parents or other loving, caring adults who have a sense of hope — and who can access the resources they need to help their family build a healthy, stable future.

In an op-ed column last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that the migrant children who had been separated from their parents along our Southern border are being well cared for. He claims they are getting “plenty of food, education in their language, and health and dental care” more so than many American children. Even if these basic services are being provided, a child’s overall health and well-being are significantly shaped by those situations that destabilize their life — the traumatic circumstances they encounter in life.

States and communities invest heavily in the ideal delivery of medical and dental services, but toxic stress severely blunts the impact of these efforts.

Experts agree that separating children from their parents has serious consequences for kids. “It disrupts their brain architecture and keeps them from developing language and social emotional bonds and gross motor skills and the development that they could possibly have,” explained Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Being separated from their moms and dads is a classic example of what researchers call adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observes, ACEs “have a tremendous impact” on children’s “lifelong health and opportunity.” The situation playing out in these detention facilities is a powerful reminder that those of us who care about oral health and overall health cannot overlook the symbiotic dynamics of children and parents.

Often in health policy, we look at parents and children as distinct eligibility categories, and we neglect to look at the overlapping impact of parent/caregiver and child. States and communities invest heavily in the ideal delivery of medical and dental services (and educating families about oral health), but toxic stress severely blunts the impact of these efforts.

Migrant children aren’t the only kids who are suffering ACEs. These and other family-centered stresses are happening all around us, in urban, suburban and rural communities — for example, when a parent loses their job or a mom is the victim of domestic abuse. When the landlord hasn’t fixed the heat in a family's apartment in mid-January, there is no real choice between a space heater and dental care.

When the landlord hasn’t fixed the heat in a family's apartment in mid-January, there is no real choice between a space heater and dental care.

It is discouraging that our current policies will be teaching us for years the implications of ACEs on children and their parents. But we can begin to look now at shared outcomes for families across the country as a focal point of collaboration. We understand that dental typically does not become a top priority until there is a dental crisis, but we also know that crisis is often systems failures and has many longer-term consequences for children and their parents/caregivers.

We, the Children’s Dental Health Project, are dedicated to joining those that seek to focus on eliminating the barriers that keep both parents and children from succeeding. Because for all the complexities of these immigration decisions, we can start by simply agreeing that strong healthy families include both children and loving adults.

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Did you know?

75% }
of American Indian/Alaskan Native children have experienced caries by age 5.
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