Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Children in our own state suffer from serious separation anxiety

Emily Knobbe, center, holds up a sign during a demonstration near the White House on Thursday, June 21, 2018, opposed to the White House policy that separated more than 2,300 children from their parents over the past several weeks. While the separation of families at the border has claimed the national spotlight, families separated within the state remain largely in the dark. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

Empathy is a poor guide for policymaking, according to Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University.

In his book “Against Empathy,” he makes a distinction between cognitive empathy leading to compassion and emotional empathy leading to tunnel vision. He contends that “I feel your pain” emotional empathy acts as a spotlight, highlighting people and issues in accordance with our biases while leaving others in the shadows.

Heather Cantamessa knows what it feels like to have your child ripped away by the state with no idea where that child is going and no way to contact him. “The kids don’t know where they’re going and can’t ask about their parents, nobody knows where anyone is going, your body reacts,” said Cantamessa.

It’s why she’s avoided much of the news coming from the southern border. It’s physically hard to watch the spotlight knowing the separated families she works with every day are still in the shadows. Cantamessa has been through the system, got her kids back, and is passionate about being part of the solution. She is a Parent Ally, contracting with child welfare agencies as an advocate for parents whose families have been separated by the state of Washington.

The border spotlight prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a statement on how 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 state of Washington may have inflicted toxic stress on 9,061 children in out-of-home care as of Jan. 1. The median length of stay is 19 months, and only 57 percent will be reunited with family within three years. The data comes from Partners for Our Children, a nonpartisan collaborative between the University of Washington and the Department of Social and Health Services, seeking to provide better data to drive better decisions.

By policy, children are only supposed to be removed in cases of physical abuse or severe neglect. Sixty-five percent of investigations statewide cite neglect, often related to drugs or parents’ mental health. In practice, poverty is a greater predictor of child removal than either addiction or parents’ health, according to Cantamessa.

She believes the state child welfare system doesn’t do enough to keep children with their parents. Locally, the rate of removal for Spokane County was 58 percent to 80 percent higher than the state average for the years 2007 through 2013. Stevens County child removal rates are even higher than Spokane County by as much as 20 percent over the same period. Eastern Washington has a family separation problem.

Data illuminates the lifelong consequences of toxic stress due to family separation. One survey of Spokane County jail inmates found that 60 percent had done time in the foster care system. Data drives better policy decisions in a way empathetic appeals cannot. Data is behind new programs in Spokane to keep families together whenever possible. A parent in jail or recovering from an overdose logically means family separation, but earliest possible reunification or avoiding removal is the new goal.

Some readers will claim this is typical conservative whataboutism, not caring about families ripped apart at the border. Others will criticize typical liberal hypocrisy, only caring when it’s fashionable. Frankly, children don’t care whether they’re picked up at the border or taken from their bedroom. They want to be with their parents.

Joseph Backholm, former president of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said: “The good news is that everyone thinks separating kids from their parents as a matter of policy is a bad idea. The bad news is that politicians still want to fight about it because solving the problem costs them an opportunity to demonize people in an election year.”

A family moved by empathy after seeing the now iconic photo of a pink-sweatered toddler in tears started a fundraiser with a modest goal of $1,500 to help one family post bond. As of Friday morning, the total raised was more than $18.4 million. It will be donated to a foundation providing free legal services to migrant families. The spotlight has been good to them even as the backstory of the photo unravels.

Meanwhile, American children in the child welfare system carry their clothes in garbage bags from house to house, never belonging anywhere, never trusting, separated from their parents. With no iconic photograph to play on our empathy, they stumble in the shadows.