Stolen Afghan child needs to be returned to her rightful family

August 9, 2023 12:05 am

Child’s hand reaches for a small toy bunny. (Getty Images)

By Dr. Marsha Griffin, Dr. Susan Foster and Dr. Breeda McGrath

It is a well-accepted fact in the world of child psychology: children thrive when they are cared for by their families and feel immersed in their culture, heritage and community. Deprived of these supports, children can feel lost and are at severe risk of long-term psychological harms that have lifelong detrimental consequences. 

Right now, we’re seeing an astonishing custody battle unfold before our eyes right here in Virginia. The case concerns the safety and well-being of an Afghan child who was taken from her family by a U.S. Marine, and is now at risk of being separated from her loved ones forever, unless action is taken immediately to reverse course.

The first 1000 days

From the moment a child is born, they begin absorbing cultural norms like a sponge. From the sounds and voices they hear around them, to the rituals of their family, to the smells and taste of food, their culture and heritage are communicated through all their senses. These experiences and memories are often what support children as they reach developmental milestones in their first 1,000 days of life. 

This was the case for Baby Doe, a little girl, now 4 years old, who finds herself at the center of a critical custody battle between her Afghan family and a United States Marine. 

After a U.S.-led raid in 2019 killed Baby Doe’s parents and five siblings, this child was taken in and cared for by the few remaining Afghan relatives in her home country. She quickly grew attached to them as her caregivers. The nurturing family environment she was surrounded by supported her continued development despite the trauma she endured from the raid, and she began to walk and crawl like any healthy baby would, even making her first attempts at babbling words and phrases in Pashto, the local language.

Then everything changed on September 3, 2021.

Just after her second birthday, Baby Doe was torn from her family’s arms by U.S. Marine Joshua Mast, who was deployed to Afghanistan at the time of the raid that killed Baby Doe’s parents and siblings. After learning about Baby Doe, Joshua Mast decided to pursue a formal adoption of her in the U.S. without her Afghan family’s knowledge. 

A devastating rupture

When children are separated from their families, they experience confusion, trauma and extreme destabilization due to the loss of significant attachment to their primary caregiver. This is particularly traumatic for babies and toddlers in the early stages of development, with the loss of familiar cultural surroundings – the food, language, rituals, smells, sounds and people who have been supporting their critical early steps in life. 

This violent rupture at such a crucial stage in a child’s development is not only confusing, but it is also frightening for the child. Living in an entirely new environment disrupts their understanding and they are forced to try to adapt without any familiar people to help them cope. This process of acculturation (adapting to a new culture) is considered challenging enough for adults who are already functioning independently and able to problem solve and make decisions. For young children, it can fundamentally disrupt their developmental process and the natural experience of attachment and identity development. 

Unfortunately, we have seen the effects of the deep-rooted legacy of violently removing children of color from their families, both within the U.S. and in other countries. There is more than enough evidence from previous cases to tell us that Baby Doe is likely to face insurmountable challenges as she moves through the stages of social, emotional and identity development in her teenage years and into adulthood. 

By the turn of the 21st century, thousands of Guatemalan children had been illegally removed from their families and adopted by foreign parents, many in the United States. Osmin, a Guatemalan child who was adopted by a white family in Philadelphia, describes what it was like being taken from his home and growing up in a culture completely foreign from his own: “I’ll carry the day I left with me for my whole life. … I cried every night … I just wanted to go back to my mom, where I couldn’t go.”  

Much like Osmin and other children separated from their families, Baby Doe is likely to experience what child psychologists often call “silent trauma.” Her unresolved and complicated grief throughout her life with the Masts will likely be something she internalizes. This trauma will deepen as she gets older and begins to understand that her Afghan family was robbed of the chance to raise her and that she was deprived of the opportunity to be able to embrace her cultural heritage, her religion and her language with pride. This loss of cultural identity, heritage, and agency shapes every aspect of a child’s life moving forward and can make it difficult to grapple with adolescence and adulthood. 

Nelson Fox is one of the thousands of Native American children who was taken from his family and tribe and placed in the custody of a white foster family before the landmark Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978. Fox recounts the pain he felt when he was forcibly taken from his loved ones and placed in this unfamiliar culture and family for 18 years. “I tried suicide. I tried slicing my wrist,” Fox said.

The Indian Child Welfare Act is a cornerstone of Virginia tribal sovereignty

As child psychologists and physicians, we witness the devastating long-term consequences of these ruptures in the lives of children like Osmin, Nelson, and Baby Doe. We strongly believe that children have better outcomes if they can grow up in a home where they are connected to their family, culture, religion and heritage. These connections are vital to supporting their healthy physical, social, cognitive, academic, emotional, and identity development. Without this fundamental grounding to help them understand who they are, and where they come from, it can be impossible for some to find their place and purpose in the world. Jane Harstad, another Native American stolen from her land, tribe and family by forcible adoption said: “When you’re adopted, you know you’re missing something. I’ve likened it to when someone has a 500-piece puzzle. They have all the pieces to make this pretty picture, except one.”

Right to family

All children should have the right to be raised within their own family of origin and culture, when the opportunity is available. From her earliest days of life, beginning with the U.S.-led raid, Baby Doe has faced traumas that will forever affect her understanding of herself and her family. Losing her parents and five siblings all in the same day during a raid in her hometown is a significant trauma for any child. When disaster strikes and circumstances prevent it, coping with and healing this trauma requires significant support. Her Afghan family was providing the support, care, and love needed to raise Baby Doe and help her deal with that trauma until her forcible adoption disrupted that process and disregarded her rights as a child and the rights of her family. 

The Masts’ intentions have always been focused on taking Baby Doe and bringing her to their home in the U.S., regardless of the consequences or the additional trauma they would be putting her through. They have gone to extreme lengths to rupture her connection to her Afghan family and culture, and they appear to have no consideration for how their actions will impact her long-term development and health.

In March 2023, a federal judge vacated the Masts’ adoption order and confirmed that the Afghan relatives who were raising her before she was taken are her “de facto” parents. However, the Masts refuse to return Baby Doe to her rightful family, and to this day, they are holding the little girl in their home while they appeal the court’s ruling. 

Her rightful family are watching from afar as their child is being raised by people who took her. Baby Doe will be speaking English instead of Pashto, celebrating holidays like Christmas instead of Ramadan, and learning American customs and traditions in place of her own.

While the Masts continue to put this child’s long-term health and safety at risk, there is an opportunity to right this wrong. The Virginia courts should immediately return this stolen child to her rightful family. Ensuring that Baby Doe is able to grow up with her Afghan family isn’t just about this one child; it is about protecting every child’s fundamental right to grow up connected to their family, heritage, culture and community.

Doctors Breeda McGrath, Susan Foster and Marsha Griffin are experts in child health and psychiatry. McGrath is Associate Campus Dean for Online programs at The Chicago School, Foster is Department Chair of the Online Counselor Education Department at The Chicago School and Griffin is a professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Child and Family Health at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

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