Toddlers in Court: 21st c. Family Separation & 19th c. Charles Dickens

I’m immersed in two books right now, both by Charles Dickens. I’m rereading Bleak House (1852-53) and during some long car trips this summer, I’ve been listening to David Copperfield (1849-50). I’ve read these works before, but each time I re-enter their worlds, I feel they are new.

Charles Dickens himself was a child laborer. This sketch, by Fred Barnard (1846-1896), is Barnard’s representation of Dickens as a child at a factory.

Because I write about law and literature in the nineteenth century, I spend a lot of time, perhaps an inordinate amount of time, thinking about the relationship between individuals and institutions, and questions of agency in Victorian novels. Dickens captures the nuances of this relationship—among individuals, the laws that shape their lives, and the forces that they must reckon with—in ways that span comedy, satire, profound alienation, and sorrow. He also gets us to think about children. Bleak House revolves around a number of lives that intersect through a seemingly never-ending case in the court of Chancery. The case hinges on the proper reading of a will. Several of these lives include wards of the court, orphans who are connected to the case in some fashion and taken in under the guardianship of a wealthy and benevolent benefactor who also is tied to the case. Dickens’ scathing depictions of legal procedures reminds us of the ways in which socio-legal institutions can be indifferent to the effects they have on us, and on children in particular.

In David Copperfield, a novel that draws on challenges in Dickens’s own childhood, the young David is, in essence, orphaned when he is left in the care of his cruel stepfather, a man who then sends him away to work in a precarious situation, one that soon collapses. A young David wanders the streets of London, so hungry, selling off any small items he has in order to keep stay alive. After walking into the countryside for miles, he manages to locate the home of his aunt. She does not recognize him at first, and shoos him off, but when she realizes he is her nephew she takes him in. She feeds him, and bathes him, and dresses him, and eventually figures out how to enroll him in school.

Dickens shows us the moments of vulnerability children experience in adult worlds. He shows us the strangeness of systems that don’t make sense, institutions that need to be reshaped or scrapped altogether, and the ways in which children suffer when they are ensnared in structures that are indifferent to their wellbeing.

So, children and the law: these are on my mind, so much so that I haven’t been sleeping well this summer. This is not because of Dickens, but because I regularly wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the fact that we are placing children in cages and toddlers in court. Last week, U.S. immigration had a one-year-old in court, Johan, who had been separated from his father. He “drank a bottle of milk and played with a purple ball as he waited for the immigration judge.”Johan then “cried hysterically”at the end of the hearing. Another child at court that day held up five fingers when asked how old he was. If you put together the satirical critique of the madness of legal procedure in Bleak House’s Chancery with the scenes of desperation of a wandering orphaned David in David Copperfield, you might come close to what the U.S. is enacting right now. But I’m not sure even Dickens would have been able to imagine children in diapers in court. Too far-fetched, I imagine he would have thought, too grotesquely absurd, even in a time when an absence of child labor laws meant that children worked in dangerous manual labor at very young ages.

When I was a graduate student, I worked as a freelance editor to bring in additional income. I edited a manuscript by another graduate student who had conducted original research in juvenile detention centers. When I was done with my editorial work, we met for coffee. I congratulated him on his work and said that I was so happy he had completed the project. He hoped to publish at least portions of it, and to expose some of the more disturbing practices he had documented. “That would be great,” I told him, enthusiastically; “and then they will change.”

He looked at me, surprised. “You know, the theory that things inevitably get better over time—that doesn’t really hold up. There’s no reason that they should necessarily; they can always go in any other direction.” I faltered, embarrassed: me, another graduate student, propping up what graduate students, at our more sophisticated moments, would have called a “Whiggish” theory of history, or the belief that we are always and inevitably moving towards a more enlightened, liberated, and democratic future. My own version of this was something like, You locate the problem, document it, propose solutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

I have thought of that moment often over the years. When I do, I am reminded that there is, in fact, no inherent reason that things will simply continue to move in a specific direction. It’s not that the past is doomed to repeat itself, but that the past always sits inside of the present. There is no inherent reason that children won’t be put in cages; there is no inherent reason that democracy won’t collapse. The only reason that these things happen one way or another is that enough people act to make them go in a particular direction.

The fact that the U.S. had Japanese internment camps during World War II, the fact that the U.S. separated Native American children from their parents, the fact that the U.S. separated African children from their parents in slavery, it turns out, has not meant that family separation and child detention couldn’t happen again. What seems stable and given is in fact not stable and given; it is simply resting on a shared set of norms that can change. While time itself might be linear, patterns and forms of organization that stretch across a timeline can and do repeat.

This sounds grim, I know. I think many of us feel grim right now. Our collective joy this week at seeing the children in Thailand be rescued from the cave, and reunited with their families, is heightened, perhaps, by a need to counteract the despair we feel at reports emerging of unnecessarily traumatized children in our own nation. In one recent testimony, a mother, who sought asylum in the U.S. at a legal point of entry, described the effects of having been forcibly separated from her baby for three months. In noting the ways in which her son now is terrified of separation and cries frequently, she stated that upon reunification, “When I took off his clothes he was full of dirt and lice. It seemed like they had not bathed him the 85 days he was away from us.”

In David Copperfield, Dickens has David narrate the story of his childhood from the perspective of an adult. David remembers things in ways that Dickens’ characters often do: as eerie hauntings of cruelty from adults, but also as reflections of gratitude for moments of kind intervention. The symbolism of the bath he is given on his arrival at his aunt’s home looms large: he is being cared for, after navigating London streets and miles of countryside while alone and hungry. Small moments become large turning points in Dickens: unexpected connections and returns have long-term effects. Dickens also helps us to better see the networks of relationships that bind characters together. Strangers, it turns out, are distant cousins whose fates loop across each other, tilting each other in new directions, just so.

What our nation is doing by separating families who are fleeing violence and hardship will haunt us in the decades ahead. This cruelty will have long-term repercussions. In general, I don’t like to use the term “evil,” because it is so loaded with theological underpinnings and what I have always thought of as a very specific, premeditated intent to cause harm. I’ve long reasoned that intent can be different from effect: the effects of a policy can be unexpected and unintended. But I am comfortable using the term, evil, when it comes to the policy of family separation. The intent is to harm and the harm is foreseen. It is as intentional as deciding to not rescue the boys in Thailand to make a point about the dangers of cave exploration, as intentional as letting the waters rise and doing nothing to try to help them. It is cruelty, and this present moment will rest inside our future as a nation, as surely as our past resides in our present.

Yesterday (Tuesday, July 10) was the court-ordered deadline for the administration to reunite children with their families. They have not met the deadline. Fewer than half of the families have been reunited. “What You Can Do Right Now to Help Immigrant Families Separated at the Border” provides useful information on steps we can take to help bring about additional reunifications. For those who want to better understand the timeline of policy changes, PBS provides a helpful overview here.

To return to the point that nothing, and certainly not some enlightenment-based form of “progress,” is predestined: while that’s initially unsettling to come to terms with, the other side of it still gives me hope. Evil and cruelty are not predestined either. Here too, things can and do change when enough people push things in another direction. “Expose and document, and demand and create solutions” is not pure naiveté, as I worried that day in the coffee shop some years ago. These are acts of regular, repetitive, unceasing labor, and they are also acts of love. And perhaps in this moment, to offer our action and our love– repeatedly and defiantly and ceaselessly–is the most important thing we can do right now.