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August 21, 2023

Q&A with Stephen Hanmer D’Elía, Research Fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University

In this interview with Stephen Hanmer D’Elía, a research fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University, Hanmer D’Elía discusses his research on transforming theory and practice to support mental health for young people on the move globally.

Stephen Hanmer D’Elía
Stephen Hanmer D’Elía

What does your research focus on?

For the past 25 years, I have worked with children, youth, and families impacted by injustice, violence, and conflict throughout the world—whether child welfare in New York city, juvenile justice in Rio de Janeiro, post-conflict recovery in Liberia, or Afghan refugee assistance in Pakistan. I have also worked as a therapist with children, teenagers, and parents. A focus of my work, both clinically and programmatically, has been working with children separated from their families while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, during the midst of a conflict, or due to abuse and/or neglect.

What interesting findings can you share about your research so far?

To best support children, it is critical to see them in their fullness–a whole child within a whole story. Key questions that need to be addressed through this lens when working with children separated from their families include:

  • How can we keep children safe, including meeting their emotional and psychological needs?
  • How can we respect children, listen and respond to their needs, and include them in decision-making, especially about their future?
  • How can we treat children with dignity, understanding, and respect in the context of their own histories, traditions, languages, and cultures?
  • How can we strive to place every child with a family member or other caring adult in a safe and supportive environment? 

How do you approach mental health risks and foster resilience for young migrants and refugees?

Two key areas of focus that cut across all the work are the primacy of safety and importance of relationships. It starts with safety–not just physical safety, but also emotional and psychological safety. Physical safety is necessary but not sufficient. Safety is more than being physically safe; it's also feeling emotionally and psychologically safe. When children feel physically and psychologically safe, they are more likely to trust, engage, and connect. Children feel emotionally and psychologically safe when they feel seen, heard, and understood by the people around them.

Creating and maintaining psychological safety for children occurs by keeping relationships central. A relational lens is critical in all work with children. The role of relationships and the importance of trust in any intervention is critical. When there are trusting, supportive relationships around a child, a sense of security develops that can help a child manage normative stressors and cultivate effective coping skills and resilience. The more a child feels they can be themselves and be vulnerable with another person yet feel safe, the better their emotional and relational functioning. It is essential to build relationships with children with explicit intention and purpose. In every interaction with a child, no matter how short, there is an opportunity for healing.

Is there a story you have learned about through your research that has impacted your understanding of how to support mental health for young people on the move globally?

As a colleague working with unaccompanied and separated children recently shared: “Every encounter with a child is an opportunity to create a healing experience by treating them with honor and dignity and seeing each child in their fullness and how they want to be seen.” A young woman, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border pregnant at 16, shared that a positive, short interaction with the border patrol officer who first found her when she crossed the border stayed with her years later. He offered her a water bottle with a caring tone in Spanish, clearly letting her know where he was taking her and what she should expect. The actions of the border patrol officer provided this young woman critical reassurance during a deeply scary and uncertain time.

How can students/faculty/Georgetown community learn more about your work?

More information is available on my website.