“Anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” –Mr. Rogers
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela
They were a family. Five children, brought into the Emergency Department by a Child Protective Services worker. The oldest was 12, the youngest just 2 years. They had been found by a neighbor, living alone in their house for what looked like days or weeks. Mom and dad were nowhere to be found, but there was a known history of drug addiction and mental health problems. My job was to examine them, treat any obvious medical conditions and send them on their way, to be placed in foster care.
My heart broke as I looked around the room to my wide-eyed, solemn patients. Their faces were grime-encrusted, their hair matted and lice-infested. The oldest one sat on the bed, refusing to look at me or answer my questions. The smallest grabbed my leg, just trying to get my attention. I quickly thought about my own children at home in their beds, clean and warm. No mother in her right mind would ever allow her children to live that way. I ached to take them home with me, bathe their little bodies, scrubbing the dirt from under their fingernails, combing the lice from their hair, and wrapping them in big blankets to read stories before bed. I longed to be the one to tell them, ‘it’s ok, your mom is coming to get you, but you can stay here until she does.’
Once a mother always a mother. We look out for our own as well as other people’s children, because we are the ones who so intimately know how extremely fragile children can be. Little minds are undeveloped. Children don’t always understand everything that happens, so it is up to us as their parents and caregivers to guide them, explain things, keep them safe. I didn’t know what to say to these children because I didn’t know what their future looked like and I had no power to ensure that the next person they encountered would care for them.
I went into pediatrics because of the innocence of my little patients. Adults are maddening. They drink and smoke and don’t take their medicine and then lie about it. Adults don’t go to the doctor for years, and then wonder why they face things like heart disease or cancer that didn’t get diagnosed earlier. Children, on the other hand, are honest and silly and incredibly stoic when in pain. They listen and take direction and often just want to feel better. Children tell you where it hurts and are easily comforted with bubbles and stickers. Their illnesses are never as a result of poor lifestyle choices and I find myself doing everything in my power on a daily basis to diagnose, treat and care for each child to the best of my ability.
We have recently heard accounts about immigrants at the border, especially the children. Personally I have been unable to spend too much time thinking about these children, these babies, because it makes me nauseous and panicky as I consider the conditions they are in. I think about my patients, the family of 5, and I know that the children at the border are experiencing worse. Much, much worse.
I don’t know how any mother anywhere is comfortable with the reports we are hearing. Sleeping on concrete floors, little food, no soap or showers or blankets. Conditions that adults would find unsanitary and unlivable are ok for children because they don’t have voices, or because their families were fleeing to a place that might be safer than their home? Children don’t choose their situations. They don’t choose to be sick, and they don’t choose to be taken across a border. As adults, we have a moral responsibility to treat them humanely and with as much care as possible. It is what we would wish for our own. And who are we if we continue to allow it? Who are we if we don’t speak out against it?
Last summer was my last summer working as the medical director for a summer camp for children with medical diseases. I left my home for 3 days at a time, on 3 separate occasions. Each time when I returned, my toddler, who was 20 months at the time, was different. He ran away from me, refusing my hugs, screaming when I tried to kiss him. It was like he didn‘t know me. I was shocked at his reaction which I quickly realized was anger at me. He was mad at me for leaving, probably even thought I had abandoned him. When I came home he needed to let me know how mad he was. It took me a few hours for him to let me hold or kiss him, and it wasn’t until the following day that things felt normal.
These children are taken away for weeks in some cases, forever in others. I don’t know how their parents make it through each day. As a mom and a doctor I am apalled this is happening in my country. The amount of unnecessary and purposefully inflicted pain on the most innocent and most vulnerable is an atrocity that none of us should allow to continue. We should all be ashamed that it has been allowed to happen, and we all should be using every voice, everyday, to protest in every way we know how.
‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3