Historical essay
“What Must That Sound Like?”: The Trauma of Family Separation

“What Must That Sound Like?”: The Trauma of Family Separation

On June 22, 2018, US Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California’s 33rd District, stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand action regarding the children in “Tender Age” detention shelters as a result of the Trump Administration’s new immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the US/Mexican border. In the course of that presentation, Lieu asked, “Imagine being ripped away from your mother or father and not knowing if you’re ever going to see them again, and then being placed in a detention facility with strangers. Imagine the horror and fear you will see doing that. What must that sound like?” As he spoke, Lieu reached into the breast pocket of his suit and activated a device that contained audio recordings made at a detention center. As the microphone picked up the recordings, the sound of wailing children, of pleas for mothers and aunts, and of reprimands in English flooded the House.

The recording was a compelling reminder of the very real human suffering taking place within “tender age” detention centers, those intended for children under the age of twelve.1 It was also an effective tool of establishing empathy with these young, helpless children. Sound is a powerful equalizer. It conveys the heart-wrenching, utterly human responses to loss, fear, and grief, while also avoiding the aspects of these children’s identity — their skin color, ethnicity, and poverty — that nationalist propaganda uses to dehumanize them.

Children inmates in the NDH in Serbia, 1942. (Serbian Historical Archive/Wikimedia Commons)

And while historians and scientists alike have done impressive work documenting the long- and short-term ramifications of family separation on those forced to endure it, this is one of the first opportunities we have to actually hear the suffering these policies cause.

That does not mean, however, that the suffering of children in the past is inaccessible. Recent bio-archeological research into the skeletons found in Irish workhouses, for example, offers heart-wrenching and scientifically verified evidence about the damage that separating children from their parents does. These skeletons date to the years of the Great Irish Famine (also known as an Gorta Mór or The Great Hunger) between 1845 and 1851, which resulted in an estimated one million deaths and a loss of between 20 to 25% of Ireland’s population from death or emigration.2

During this period, hunger, destitution, and fear forced families to make the most difficult of decisions — to stay together at home and risk almost inevitable starvation, or to endure unavoidable separation at the workhouse. British laws, like the Trump administration’s current inhumane immigration policies, were specifically designed to punish and shame the poor and the starving, depicting them as unworthy of help.

To be clear, while this piece will be largely focused on victims of the Irish Famine, it must be remembered that they are merely one example in a long and shameful history of family separation by imperialist nations, including the United States. Such history encompasses First Nations and Native American/Indian children forced into residential and missionary schools in North America, the Stolen Generations of indigenous peoples of Australia and Torres Strait Islanders, and the total disassembling of African families through the practice of slavery.

Screen shot of the Stolen Generations Testimonies website, were dozens of survivor testimony videos are housed.

The Irish Poor Law of 1838, the first such legislation in Ireland, reflected the English government’s negative social and cultural views towards the Irish. English legislators thought that Ireland was overrun by poverty and inhabited by an inferior class of people who were lazy, incapable of industrious work, and inherently dishonest.3

In England, paupers could apply for both indoor relief, or incarceration in the workhouse, and outdoor relief, which included donations of food, money, clothing, or other goods that would help defer total destitution. However, until the height of the famine years in Ireland, the only option for paupers there was workhouse incarceration. As social scientist Serena Romano has noted, this practice had four objectives: “reducing the cost of poor relief, discouraging idleness, disciplining the poor; and … isolating them so that they could not ‘infect’ the rest of their society with their diseases, their vice and their immorality.”4

To ensure that Irish paupers admitted to the workhouse wouldn’t become dependent on charity, the 1838 Poor Law stipulated that institutional living conditions needed to be considerably worse than that which able-bodied paupers could expect to find outside.5 Far worse than the physical conditions, however, were the restrictions placed on families who appealed to the workhouse for help — and survival.

Many parents left their children at the workhouse before emigrating to British North America (Canada) or the United States in the hopes of finding work in other countries and sending money back home to save their families. Those unable to afford passage out of Ireland, or who were too sick to travel, were forced to enter the workhouse together.

View of the Carlow Union Workhouse (National Library of Ireland)

At that point, each member of the family was subjected to the Poor Law’s stringent and dehumanizing regulations, which dictated that families who were admitted to the workhouse were to be immediately separated. Authorities believed that this practice would reduce the chance that children would learn or inherit their pauperism from their parents, as well as to punish or shame parents who relied on state support for survival.6

Workhouse authorities sent all children between the ages of two and nine to a nursery and children between ten and fifteen into gender-segregated wards.7 During the Famine, children thus represented the largest demographic group using indoor relief and tended to remain in workhouses the longest.8 The only exception to these policies were mothers with children younger than two years old, who were allowed to remain together.9 After a child’s second birthday, workhouse employees took the child from the mother and transferred the child to the nursery.

Recent studies on skeletons interred at the Kilkenny Workhouse during the Great Hunger shows that, of the children who survived their first two years, the largest number died in the following year. As bioarcheologist Jonny Geber notes in his report on these skeletons, “the short- and long-term consequences of psychosocial stress due to maternal/parental deprivation” was no doubt a significant contributor to the children’s deaths.10

Although the laws in the Kilkenny Workhouse stated that mothers should have access to their children between the ages of two and seven “at all reasonable times,” in reality, due to the breakdown in order caused by the Famine, they were only allowed visitation once a week at previously-reserved times.11 Such deprivation continued to compromise children’s long-term health. Psychological stress has been shown to have a longer-term effect on the immune system, weakening the body’s ability to fight bacterial infections like typhus, tuberculosis, and recurring fevers—precisely the diseases to which they were exposed during the famine, especially in the workhouse.

To be clear: conditions in workhouses deteriorated as a result of the overwhelming suffering caused by famine throughout Ireland. However, the responding policies were borne out of a belief that those in need of help were inferior, undeserving and dangerous. The notion of the “deserving poor” that was used to stigmatize the starving in Ireland is still prevalent today in the United States and Europe, evidenced by the way the poor and displaced are portrayed in state propaganda. Those without homes, without places to belong, are easily written off by those with power and privilege as something “less than.”12 Such language makes it easy to forget their basic needs — both physical and emotional. It rejects human bonds, and it facilitates the separation of family members by removing guilt and empathy from the equation.

The physical and emotional toll of separation can often prove too daunting for words. There are, to our knowledge, no accounts of the Irish workhouse by those incarcerated in them.

We can, however, learn from other people who have suffered separation, and who struggle to relate the emotional pain of that experience. John W. Fields, an enslaved man in Kentucky who was separated from his mother at the age of six, stated to oral historians, “I can’t describe the heartbreak and horror of that separation.”13 Another formerly enslaved woman, Susan Hamilton, remembered how “night an’ day, you could hear men an’ women screamin’…sa[iying] either ma, pa, sister, or brother wus take [sic] without any warnin’ … People wus [sic] always dyin’ from a broken heart.”14

What is there to fill the silence that such trauma causes? How to record the pain that a mother feels when singing her child a lullaby for the last time? How to describe the fear and grief a father feels as he promises to return for his children? We can hear that grief in the recording played by Representative Lieu in Congress. That grief is both a damnation of current US policy towards immigrants, and a horrible reminder of all the unspeakable emotional turmoil and life-threatening trauma that enforced family separations has inflicted over time.

The voices of those traumatized children force us to realize that, as humans, we vary very little in terms of our need for one another and the power of our capacity to love. What differs is how much, or how little, we respect those bonds in others, and the humanity those bonds imply.


  1. Reports have shown that asylum-seekers also have been detained as “illegal immigrants,” and we cannot assume the actual immigration status of people solely based on their presence in detention centers. Return to text.
  2. C.Ó Gráda and Joel Mokyr, “New developments in Irish Population History 1700–1850,” Economic History Review, 32, no. 4 (1984): 473–488. Return to text.
  3. Christine Kinealy, “Saving the Irish Poor: Charity and the Great Famine,” 2015. Return to text.
  4. Serena Romano, Moralising Poverty: The ‘Undeserving’ Poor in the Public Gaze (New York: Routledge, 2018), 24. Return to text.
  5. See Gerard Moran, “‘Suffer Little Children’: Life in the Workhouse During the Famine,” in Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland, edited by Christine Kinealy, Jason King, and Gerard Moran (Quinnipiac University Press, 2018), 27-8; Ian Miller, Reforming Food in Post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, science and improvement 1845-1922 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 68. Return to text.
  6. See Vincent Crawford, Holodomor and Gorta Mór: Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland (New York: Anthem Press, 2014, reprint), 119-120. Return to text.
  7. Moran, 29. Return to text.
  8. Helen Burke, The People and the Poor Law in Nineteenth Century Ireland (West Sussex: The Women’s Education Bureau, 1987), 185. Return to text.
  9. It should be noted that this policy does not exist for children being held in detention by the US government. “Tender age” detention centers are currently holding infants who have been separated from their parents. Return to text.
  10. Jonny Geber, “Mortality among Institutionalised Children during the Great Famine in Ireland: Bioarchaeological Contextualisation of Non-adult Mortality Rates in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse, 1846–1851,” Continuity and Change 31, no. 1 (2016):117. Return to text.
  11. Jonny Geber, “‘Wretched in the Extreme’: Investigating child experiences of the Great Hunger through bioarcheology” in eds. Christine Kinealy, Jason King, and Gerard Moran, Children and the Great Hunger in Ireland (Quinnipiac University Press, 2018), 83. Return to text.
  12. For more on this, see Susan Fraiman, Extreme Domesticity: A View From the Margins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). Return to text.
  13. National Humanities Center, “The Making of African American Identity: Vol. 1, 1500-1865,” accessed July 19, 2018. Return to text.
  14. Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 2, Eddington-Hunter. 1936. Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA), accessed July 20, 2018. Return to text.

Bridget Keown is a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is leading their gender and science initiative. She received her doctorate in history from Northeastern University, and her MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History from King's College London. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World War. She is also researching the history of kinship among gay and lesbian groups during the AIDS outbreak in the United States and Ireland.