- The youngest child separated from his family at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has reportedly been demonstrating symptoms of trauma.
- Constantin Mutu was 4 months old when he was separated from his father, and 9 months old when he was finally reunited. He is now more than 18 months old and cannot walk or speak, The New York Times reported.
- Experts say the situation highlights the dangers of splitting up migrant children from their parents – even if it’s only temporary.
- Though children like Constantin may have no memory of the separation or the experience of being in custody, he could still feel the effects of the trauma later in life.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Constantin was just 4 months old when he was forcibly taken from his father at the US border.
While Constantin was sent to live with a foster family in Michigan for 5 months, his father was arrested, detained, and deported back to Romania, The New York Times reported in its TV series “The Weekly.”
By the time Constantin was reunited with his parents and siblings, he was roughly 9 months old, and he appeared not to recognize his biological family, according to The Times.
He reportedly screamed and cried the entire drive back from the Romanian airport, devastated at the loss of his foster mother.
Even months later, by the time he was 18 months old, Constantin still couldn’t walk on his own and refused to speak.
“He says absolutely nothing,” his mother told The Times.
Constantin is the youngest known child separated from his parents at the US-Mexico border last year, and his case highlights the damage caused by keeping migrant children away from their parents, and their difficulty recovering once they’re finally reunited.
Experts in early childhood development and psychology have watched with anguish for more than a year as a humanitarian crisis unfolded at the border, with migrant families separated by immigration authorities and young children detained in facilities without adequate hygiene, food, or adults.
The separation from his foster mother could have been even worse than the separation from his birth mother
- Getty Images/John Moore
There are a number of unknown factors in Mutu’s case that make it impossible to determine exactly what’s happening in his young mind, experts said.
A number of elements could have influenced the extent of his condition, including whether Constantin ever experienced trauma before the separation, what type of care he received in his foster family, and whether he had any existing developmental or health-related issues.
Kathryn L. Humphreys, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies psychology and early childhood development, said the bulk of Constantin’s trauma would likely have been experienced not when he was separated from his birth parents, but when he was reunited with them.
By that point, Constantin had spent 5 months with his foster mother, and just 4 months with his birth mother – more than half of his young life. By the time Constantin was reunited with his family in Romania, he had likely already started forming a strong attachment bond with his foster mother, Humphreys said.
Constantin’s foster mother would even text his birth mother with tips on how he liked to be held and soothed, according to The Times.
What happened to Constantin psychologically
- Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
It’s impossible to tell how much a four-month-old baby understands, or whether he could comprehend the sudden absence of his birth mother.
But Humphreys said babies as young as 4 months old generally notice things like changes in their surroundings and the people who are around them. It’s not until they’re a little bit older that they start to associate specific people with a sense of safety, she said.
“They’ll probably notice that their caregiver that is usually around isn’t, but they may not experience that as a traumatic event in part because they’re not yet seeking out that caregiver for guidance about the safety and security of the environment,” Humphreys told INSIDER.
“In some ways they may be more easily able to substitute one responsive and nurturing caregiver with another at that point,” she added.
Recovery is always possible – but there’s a long road ahead
Humphreys said that recovery for children like Constantin is always possible – particularly when they’re placed with a proper caregiver before they’re a year old.
But it’s far from clear what sorts of long-term consequences he could suffer after his early childhood.
“There aren’t that many careful longterm studies looking at the health of these kids as they get into adulthood and older adulthood, where there may be more signs of the physiological consequences of early stress on development,” she said.
- AFP/Orlando Sierra via Getty Images
Though Constantin will likely grow up with no specific memory of the separation and reunification he experienced, he could still feel inexplicable anguish or turmoil due to events he cannot remember.
Janet Shapiro, the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, told INSIDER that that concern is very much present for the children currently being detained in appalling conditions in Border Patrol facilities – even those who are too young to make sense of their situation.
Those children might develop “triggers,” where they respond to things like sounds or body sensations that remind them of the experience, though they may not have a specific memory of it.
“This little baby we’re talking about, he’s probably not going to have an explicit narrative memory of his first year. But there may be consequences of that experience that are very present in his life as he grows older,” Shapiro said. “It’s important for people to know that just because we don’t have an explicit narrative memory all the time doesn’t mean that there’s not other kinds of implicit memories that affect our wellbeing.”
- Read more:
- The children who have been detained in appalling conditions at the border could bear scars from the experience for life, experts say
- The Smithsonian is interested in collecting the heartbreaking drawings migrant children made of their time in border facilities
- What a typical day is like for a child in government custody at a Texas Border Patrol station
- The beloved kids magazine Highlights issued a scathing takedown of the Trump administration’s ‘unconscionable’ treatment of migrant children