Family Separations Hit Close to Home

by Executive Director Jenn Meeropol

Images of small children in cages, crying for their parents or holding signs protesting a parent’s detention or deportation flooded my email and social media this summer. I’m enraged and saddened by what the government is doing in all of our names. As the granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and the daughter of their younger son, Robert Meeropol, I also have a unique and deeply personal reaction to seeing children separated from parents.

The circumstances are very different, but at the core the similarities resonate: once again, our government is using children as weapons in the battle for public opinion in a time of mass hysteria around a perceived national threat.

When I saw the pictures of so many children in detention, it reminded me of the things that keep me up at night when I think about my dad’s childhood: my father as a little boy, trying to understand why his parents disappeared from his life after they were arrested; and the time he and his older brother spent in a shelter when their extended family was unable or unwilling to care for them.

Scenes making headlines recently also mirror aspects of the experiences of too many of our grantees, many of whom deal with the absence of one or more of their parents, often resulting in life-long trauma. A former beneficiary, now herself a parent to young children, recently wrote about a prison visit that ended with her being physically separated from her father by guards. “I was 13 and the state tore me, sobbing, away from my father. That visit broke something inside me that hasn't been fixed, that can't be fixed.”

In two critical ways, family separation is at the core of the RFC. The first is my dad’s experience when his parents were taken from him when he was just three. The second is another legal case also involving parents and young kids, which directly spurred the formation of the RFC.

In the late 1980s seven defendants were facing politically motivated charges of seditious conspiracy in federal court in western Massachusetts. My father learned that each of the three married couples in the group had three children, and that when one couple was arrested, the authorities seized their three kids, then ages three, five and 11, and held them incommunicado for several weeks. The oldest was repeatedly interrogated without any supportive adult present. During this period the FBI told the parents that the children would not be released to their relatives until the parents cooperated.

My father recalls that this revelation coursed through him like an electric shock. Bad as his childhood was, he was never interrogated. But the authorities had used these children to extort cooperation from the defendants, the same way they had used my father and uncle to pressure my grandparents.

Several months later, my dad sat up in bed at 4:00 am struck by the idea that would become the RFC: a foundation that would help those kids and others who lived a nightmare like the one he and his brother experienced.

The people who fought for my family were my dad’s heroes and they are mine as well. I’m grateful every day that my work allows me to advocate for kids who are used as pawns for political gain. I’ll continue doing so for the crying children in cages, for the little boys who were my dad and uncle, and for all of the children of activist parents who are part of the RFC community today.