Autumn is 5. On the playground at Tomorrow’s Hope Child Development Center, she wasn’t shy about sharing something important: “It’s my mom’s birthday today,” she said.
In those five words Friday, the girl in the Minnie Mouse shirt said a mouthful. She conveyed what matters most. Autumn wanted to tell visitors to the center on Everett’s Evergreen Way about a big day for a special person — her mother.
As we see wrenching reports of children separated from parents apprehended at the U.S.-Mexican border, early childhood experts here carry on their critical work. Children’s well-being, they say, depends on stability, nurturing, and that key relationship with a parent or other loved one.
The child development center is operated by Housing Hope. The Everett-based agency provides low-income housing around Snohomish County. With child care, preschool programs and Head Start, the center serves infants to school-age kids, about 110 in all. Some have experienced homelessness. A van makes daily pick-ups from area shelters.
Erin Jackson, the center’s director, took a break on the playground with Autumn and more than a half-dozen other children. Jackson climbed atop a play structure called “the hill” and reached out to calm a tiny boy who was momentarily upset.
Jackson, a licensed social worker, said each child is different, but a regular routine helps them all thrive. “Maybe in the past they didn’t have that,” she said. “We give them skills, how to calm down, to take a breath or draw a picture.”
What she calls “the attachment piece” — that one person who is central in a child’s life — is essential. “The attachment piece starts before birth. If they don’t have that safe base, they won’t look to explore,” Jackson said. “Without that, it’s hard to be able to start school.”
It’s been heartrending to look at and yet impossible to look away from images of the youngest federal detainees, tots separated from parents and held in “tender age” centers. The New York Times reported that as many as 2,400 children under 12, many taken from parents, were in custody last week.
Bowing to political pressure, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday saying that parents and children would be detained together. Yet the administration insisted it would keep enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy on people crossing the border illegally.
Housing Hope takes a whole-family approach, with its College of Hope classes in parenting, cooking and other life skills. Children needing extra services are helped through partnerships with a child psychologist, ChildStrive and the schools.
“To stabilize the child, we have to stabilize the family,” Jackson said.
Kristina Saunsaucie is director of the Early Learning Center at Everett Community College. With an undergraduate degree in psychology and family studies and a master’s in child, couple and family therapy, she has provided mental health consultation for early childhood programs.
Thinking of families in federal detention, Saunsaucie said, “the hard part for me, the young children have no idea why their parents aren’t with them.” She agrees that nurturing and consistency are essential for children.
“They need to be able to count on the adult in their life to provide that for them,” Saunsaucie said. “They don’t know about government policies or politics.”
Children as young as a few months old have been sent to shelters in at least 16 states, according to The Washington Post.
“Probably siblings are separated as well,” Saunsaucie said. “That’s the second most important relationship those children have.”
The EvCC Early Learning Center, which serves 120 families, has had classrooms where nine languages are spoken. And some children there have experienced trauma, Saunsaucie said. “I fully believe in the resiliency of children and parents,” she said. But, she added, “mental health issues are lifelong when you break attachments.”
The years from birth to 5 are crucial to the rest of a person’s life. Brain development in those early years is huge, Saunsaucie said.
“It’s all in the relationships, healthy attachment to parents, teachers, care providers,” Saunsaucie said. Without those bonds, she said, it’s much harder to learn later. “The really sad thing is, at some point they stop trying to form attachments.”
She worries most about a child who isn’t crying for attention — “the ones who stop trying to get their needs met.”
For children being detained, what happens next matters. Saunsaucie hopes they won’t be subjected to more trauma.
“Children need attention and affection, they need all of that beyond getting a meal and water,” she said. And if families are reunited, they’ll need lots of support “to really help children see this wasn’t their parents’ decision.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Families Belong Together” rallies are planned in Washington, D.C., and nationwide on June 30. Locally, a Families Belong Together event is scheduled for 10 a.m. June 30 at the Snohomish County Courthouse plaza, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.