Families Reunited – Where Do We Go From Here?

Families Reunited – Where Do We Go From Here?

A Systems Approach to Helping Families in the Aftermath of Separation

Ana Willis, July 2019

Current Situation

In April 2018, the U.S. government introduced a new immigration policy called “zero tolerance” with the objective of deterring illegal immigration from the southern border. This policy established that all adults who crossed the border illegally would be criminally prosecuted through the legal system. However, previously existing laws regarding minors instituted that children could not be sent to jail, and the process of separating children from their families became the new practice.

The Washington Post reported on July 2018 that 2634 children had been separated from their family and handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. These children were sent to shelters all across the country while parents remained detained, waiting to be processed or deported.

President Trump signed an executive order to end the policy, after massive outrage from society, politicians, and the media. This was the first step in calming anxiety in the public as everyone assumed the practice would stop, and migrant families would soon be reunited. The reality was much different. Most of the media moved on to the next headline, and the public began to pay less attention to the issue, but the crisis did not end. One year later, the issue is still present with media reports related to new findings. Several news outlets had reported that the actual number of separated families is unknown as there were thousands of families separated before the “zero tolerance” policy was even announced (The Washington Post, February 21, 2019).

Several issues related to the process of reuniting families complicated the act of actually getting families back together (The Washington Post, July 28, 2018). One problem had to do with defining these families into a category in the Customs and Border Protection database. The database had categories for “ family units,” and “unaccompanied alien children” but did not have a classification for the more than 2600 children taken from their families and placed into government shelters. As a result, they were named “deleted family units.” When the order came to reunite these families, information was sent to the Department of Health and Human Services to facilitate reunifications. However, the office’s database did not have a column for families with that designation. Caseworkers and government officials were left sifting by hand through files of all migrant children in custody to identify which ones had arrived with parents, where the adults were jailed and how to put families back together. No one knew precisely where parents and children were.

Another complication in getting families back together involved legal matters related to the family’s status. After President Trump signed the order to end families separations, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw set deadlines for reuniting children with their parents (The Texas Tribune, July 13, 2018). July 10, 2018, was set as the deadline for reunifying kids under 5, and July 26, 2018, for the rest of the kids. The Washington Post reported that by July 28, 1877 children had been reunited with their family, of which 103 of those kids were under the age of 5. The remainder of the kids, 757, of which 46 were under the age of 5, were determined ineligible for reunification for reasons related to parental legal troubles. Some of these parents had been deported. Others had criminal records or had not been cleared to regain custody. The Huffington Post (December 03, 2018) claimed that the figures indicated that out of the more than 2600 children who were separated at the border, only 171 were under government custody.

The practice of separating children from their parents and resulting consequences continue to be current concerns. In spite of the previous court order, families are still being separated at the border. USA Today in February 2019 reported that Customs and Border Protection officials are separating families under the exception where a parent presents a risk to the child. Reporters and caseworkers are finding that this exemption is being abused and no professionals are involved in the assessment of parents.

So where do we go from here?

There are the legal matters and injustices to sort through involving both families that remain separated and families that have been reunited. Public outrage and anxiety can lead to demands for better practices and policies in the present and the future. Legal consultation for those who seek asylum or citizenship is essential. Providing help to the families who have made it through the legal system and are finally back together as they adapt to their new environment is another avenue. What can be the most helpful approach? How can someone become a resource for thinking clearly about what is happening in any area of help? 


Bowen Theory

Bowen Theory, as a framework for thinking helps in understanding and dealing with this issue in four particular ways:
Consider the impact of Societal Emotional Process on the family and different ways families react under similar challenges.
Establish the responsibility of the professional to manage his and her anxiety to help.

Provide guidelines for professionals to use to learn more about the facts and functioning of the family in dealing with adversity and challenges over the generations.

Consider the nature of emotional cut-off from the family of origin both in the United States and in the country of origin and promote connecting with family and dealing with the challenges involved.

Societal Emotional Process and Triangles

The same patterns of functioning present in families can be observed in society. Murray Bowen (1978) introduced this term to illustrate how society works as a system where interlocking triangles and other patterns of functioning are also displayed. In the case of families being separated at the border, triangles can be identified in positions that are taken in regards to government and the families. Media and nonprofit organizations position themselves on the side of families and against government’s policies, using language targeted at fostering outrage and anxiety while asking for help and donations to help the afflicted. The government on the other side, depict these families as monsters or terrorists coming to attack and endanger the country. Society is left to choose sides adding anxiety to each position.

Triangles related to this issue add anxiety to an already anxious environment. Understanding the process of triangles depends on seeing the automatic emotional reactions operating in which each relationship influences how everyone thinks and feels about the problem. The process in emotional triangles perpetuates and promotes reaction patterns. Everyone participates. No one is the cause. 

Anyone who can establish a relationship with both other parties in conflict with each other and develop a more neutral and thoughtful position for self will contribute toward more responsible functioning (Bowen, 245). This is difficult for anyone to do in the emotionally charged arena of immigration. Anyone who can find common concerns, i.e. the treatment and welfare of children and families, may be able to contribute. The experience of stress and the distress of others may be another common concern as a basis for changes. 

Distance and cut-off between organizations can also be recognized as a part of the societal emotional process. As described earlier, it appears that the different organizations involved in the process of separating families were working independently and with little or no communication between them. The fact that information about the families got lost or confused due to a lack of a standard classification in the database speaks to how little these organizations were collaborating. It shows how each organization was working from a reactive position to deal with an anxious situation. No calm, rational solutions were put in place. As a result, families were separated for more extended periods without contact and information about the whereabouts of their members. This generates unnecessary suffering and anxiety.

The concept of societal emotional process is of particular importance to take into consideration for anyone trying to help reunited families. Being able to identify how this process is influencing not only the family but the professional thinking about the problem can help anyone collaborating with the family work to develop and maintain a more objective view of the situation. As Walter Smith has observed, when the professionals trying to help get caught up in this anxiety and the helping system is blended in with what is happening in the family, little progress can be made toward the ability of the family to become less reactive and more resourceful. He explains how Bowen theory can add to understanding reactivity for the professional and contribute toward being less anxious. (Walter Smith, personal communication 2018). The emotional process in society influences the emotional process in families as a background that affects all families. Having the awareness that family process and societal process influence efforts to move forward into stabilization can make a difference.

Family Emotional Process and Anxiety

The ability to think systems and aim to understand the emotional process in the family offer a broader perspective on how a particular family may overcome an event, regulate anxiety, and improve adaptiveness. Being able to observe patterns of functioning and identify triangles and other mechanisms in place may help the family identify better ways to cope and adapt to the situation. Bowen theory describes how the role of the therapist is crucial in helping families. Kerr and Bowen (1988) define how a Bowen theory trained therapist works to be factual and objective. Although the therapist must be able to listen to feelings and subjective reactions, he must also be able to direct his questions to the more thoughtful capacity of the person. A therapist’s ability to do this calms a family. “His functioning can be a stimulus for family members to focus less on others and to be more responsible for themselves.” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). The therapist, as a resource for observing and thinking about the emotional process can help the family identify resources within themselves to stabilize anxiety.

How a therapist deals with anxiety in the family can guide the course of any therapy. In therapy based on Bowen theory, the therapist uses his knowledge about triangles to avoid becoming over-involved or taking sides, while remaining in constant emotional contact with the family over some time. The therapist remains focused on family history and multigenerational process rather than focusing only on the presenting symptoms and current challenges. Families suffering from the experience of crossing the border and separation from each other have many practical problems. If a therapist reacts to a family’s situation by telling people what to do or feeling responsible for solving the problems, resources in the family become submerged. Walter Smith (personal communication, 2018) adds that Bowen theory makes it more about research while the therapist tries to observe what is factual and gets more neutral about the emotional process. Being able to stay focused on the facts without making interpretations enables the family to search within them for resources to manage anxiety. 

Remaining thoughtful is not easily accomplished when the intensity of anxiety is high, and symptoms are present. According to Kerr and Bowen (1988), therapy based on family systems theory is always focused on reducing anxiety in the family to relieve the symptoms and increasing the level of differentiation to improve adaptiveness. Various methods for self-regulation of anxious reactions can be learned and practiced by families who are dealing with the aftermath of separation and immigration. Breathing methods or relaxation practice or even neurofeedback can help interrupt anxious reactions. Reducing the level of anxiety or stress and increasing family stability involves more than these techniques, however. One way Bowen therapy helps reduce anxiety is by examining the patterns and relationships in the family. A broader focus on family relationship process offers possibilities that are based on recognizing the strengths in the family and family history and on the goals and purposes for family stability.

Multigenerational Process and Family Variation

Another important aspect to examine in the process of helping reunited families gain some stabilizing mechanisms is the family multigenerational process. Knowledge of what relationship patterns and functioning have prevailed in past generations helps illustrate what resources the family has within itself to overcome adversity. The multigenerational process provides a base to make predictions in the present generation and helps identify what to expect in future generations.

Professionals in Bowen Theory can talk with people about important things that have happened in their family. Walter Smith (October 2018) describes the advantages of being able to sit with families for 2,3, or 4 years, to talk and learn from them, to get a family diagram and to look at the multigenerational process. Robert Noone (2008) describes how research in neurobiology and stress reactivity provide support for observations that the family plays a central role in preparing individuals in their responses to stress and the social environment and how this responsiveness can be transmitted from generation to generation non-genetically.

Awareness of multigenerational process also helps understand family variation. Every family that lives through the ordeal of being separated and reunited will experience different symptoms and different struggles. The symptoms are part of a larger process relevant to levels of differentiation, levels of chronic anxiety and levels of functioning. Learning about multigenerational history, making a family diagram and understanding what plays a part in how people adapt to adversity help professionals have a wider picture of what the family is up against and about the strengths that they bring to current challenges.

Emotional Cut-off

Bowen (1978) developed this concept to describe emotional distancing from the family of origin achieved through internal mechanisms or physical distance. Evaluating how much cut-off a particular family experience adds to understanding how the decision to migrate to the United States was made and what resources are available in the process of adaptation to the new environment.

Numerous studies have examined the different repercussions emotional cut-off can have in a family, as well as the benefits from bridging the emotional distance with extended family. Baker and Gippenreiter (1996), conducted a research project to study the multigenerational impact of the 1930s Stalin Purge and concluded that families that were not able to maintain some sense of connection and continuity with the lost grandparents experienced a negative impact on functioning in succeeding generations. Those who were cut off emotionally as well as physically from their grandparents experienced a decline in functioning. Walter Smith (2017), has observed in his work with families with symptoms of child abuse a pattern of relationship distance and cutoff among branches of extended family. Isolated branches of a family are at risk for more severe symptoms and aggression. Cutoff as a mechanism to deal with anxiety or to survive adverse circumstances, increased vulnerability for symptom development.

Bowen-trained professionals can guide families into bridging emotional cut-off. Bowen (1978) describes the importance of maintaining some kind of viable emotional contact with past generations. This contact contributes to a more orderly and asymptomatic life process in both generations. According to Kleever (2016), Bowen theory proposes that viable emotional contact with the extended family reduces anxiety. Viable emotional contact can be described as the opposite of cut-off and is characterized by an open, person to person communications and being involved in important family events. The reduction in anxiety produced by emotional contact may help the family adapt to the pressures and challenges of life, which reduces the likelihood of severe or chronic symptoms. Kleever conducted a fifteen-year study that examined how viable emotional contact with past generations influences nuclear family symptomatology. His findings support the value of developing one-to-one, personal relationships with members of the multigenerational family for improving personal and family functioning over time. Gilbert (2003), reports on a study conducted in residential treatments for adolescents where Bowen theory was applied to modify standard procedures regarding family contact. Under the premise that more cutoff increases anxiety and increased anxiety is associated with symptoms of various sorts, patients were encouraged to increase contact with family members. The increased contact with family was associated with a reduction in the frequency of symptoms and medication along with improved behavior and grades.

As earlier described, the cut-off is built into the separation of children from their parents and family during immigration. Government officials, various organizations involved, politicians and media, even those who want to help, play a part in the cutoff. Understanding cutoff and its repercussions can be a resource for everyone involved in dealing with immigration challenges. Asking facts about the family and family history, recognizing the importance of family even when relationships are difficult or abusive, and talking about the strengths in family members bring connections to mind and are stabilizing to some extent. Planning for contact and laying groundwork for contact with family is possible. Removing obstacles to contact is important.

Final Thoughts

Bowen theory offers a way to move forward in the aftermath of migration and family separation. Reunited families and professionals are working to help them face numerous challenges.

Approaching the issue with an awareness of both societal and family elements contributing to anxiety makes a difference in how anxiety can be managed and modified. We are all learning with these families; relying on theory can lead the way.


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