This week the House Judiciary Committee begins its formal inquiries into the Trump Administration’s separation of children from their families as part of a “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018.
The policy of family separation was curtailed after public outcry, but the trauma remains. Experts in developmental neuroscience have explained that the trauma of separation has likely produced long-term toxic effects on the brains of these young people.
Moreover, the trauma of separation is only one of many stressors affecting the lives of those seeking refuge and asylum. Children who witness intense violence and flee war-ravaged lands are at greater risk of psychological harm. Children at the U.S. border encounter even more trauma when they enter an immigration system where the Supreme Court has recently held that they can be detained indefinitely.
Legal advocates across the world, including law clinics like the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, are using the law to address these challenging circumstances.
In a timely panel on Monday, March 4, “Trauma at the Border,” we will explore whether and how neuroscience has a role to play in legal advocacy. Can neuroscience help frame the policy debate? In individual cases, can brain evidence be used to improve client outcomes? How can advocates most effectively and sensitively work with clients who are experiencing such significant ongoing trauma?
Addressing these and related questions will be Harvard professor Dr. Charles Nelson, III, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Director of Research, Developmental Medicine Center, Boston Children’s Hospital; Cindy Zapata, JD, Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Law School; and me, Francis X. Shen, PhD, JD, Executive Director, Harvard Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, Massachusetts General Hospital and Senior Fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience, Petrie-Flom Center in Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, Harvard Law School.
The presentations and discussions will be both scientifically rich and passionately personal. Dr. Nelson’s research on the effects of trauma on the young child’s brain has been featured in conversations about immigration policy, and Attorney Zapata led Harvard Law School students on service trip to Karnes Detention Center, where they worked with children and fathers who had been forcibly separated under the Trump administration policy.
As Executive Director of the MGH Center for Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB), which partners with the Petrie-Flom Center to produce the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, I am excited because this event reflects the CLBB’s mission to bring about systemic legal reform through innovative uses of neuroscience.
We believe that better decisions aligned with science will produce better outcomes, aligned with justice.
Neuroscientists have been vocal about the toxic effects of trauma on the young brain, and legal advocates have been vigorous in their efforts to pursue justice for immigrant families. Integrating neuroscience in a responsible and strategic manner has the potential to improve legal doctrine and practice. But to realize that potential, we need more direct dialogue between neuroscience and law. This panel offers both scientists and lawyers an opportunity to kick-start that dialogue.
I hope our upcoming events marks the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, and I hope you will join us.