Online Program

Long journey home: Family reunification and the disappeared children of El Salvador

Monday, November 4, 2013 : 12:30 p.m. - 12:48 p.m.

Elizabeth Barnert, MD, MS, Department of Pediatrics, UCLA Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, California, CA
Eric Stover, Human Rights Center & Schools of Law and Public Health, UC Berkeley Human Rights Center, Berkeley, CA
Gery Ryan, PhD, RAND Health, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA
Paul J. Chung, MD, MS, Departments of Pediatrics and Health Policy & Management, UCLA Schools of Medicine and Public Health, Los Angeles, CA
Background: During El Salvador's civil war (1980-1992), hundreds of children were separated, often forcibly, from their biological families and turned over to orphanages or given up for adoption overseas. Years later, many of these children—-now adolescents or young adults—-were reunited with their biological families. Understanding the reunification experiences of these “disappeared” children helps shed light on the process of family separation and reunification as a result of war, natural disasters, immigration, and in some circumstances, international adoption.

Methods: Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in El Salvador from 2005-2009. Data consisted of field notes and semi-structured interviews with disappeared youth who had been reunited with their families (n = 26; ages 24 to 34 years) and their biological relatives (n = 14). Thematic content analysis of the interviews is ongoing; preliminary results are presented here.

Results: Most disappeared children were separated from their families during infancy or early childhood and later reunited as adolescents. Living in orphanages or with adoptive families, once reunited, many youth attempted to shed their former identities and formulate new identities and family concepts. Some developed close long-term ties with their biological families and almost all described difficulties with the relationships. Nevertheless, youth unanimously reported that reunification had been beneficial.

Conclusion: Family reunification was a challenging, long-term, and ultimately beneficial process, highlighting the extreme dislocation caused by family separation and the healing potential of reunification. Further research on reunification across settings is warranted to help design interventions and policies that prevent unnecessary separations and ease reunifications.

Learning Areas:

Other professions or practice related to public health
Planning of health education strategies, interventions, and programs
Public health or related public policy
Public health or related research
Social and behavioral sciences

Learning Objectives:
Describe the experiences of the disappeared children of El Salvador with family reunification. Articulate three assets of this population and three major challenges faced by the disappeared Salvadoran youth. Discuss programmatic interventions and policies that could support the process of family reunification.

Keyword(s): War, Human Rights

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I conducted ethnographic research on the "disappeared" children of El Salvador for my public health Master's thesis at UC Berkeley. I am a pediatrician and Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar research fellow and am leading this current project.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.