Gordon, 3, would not look his parents in the eyes, and refused to call them Mom and Dad. He erupted in tantrums and sometimes cried nonstop for half an hour.
“We did not know why,” said his mother, Winnie Liu, recalling the desperation that sent them to a neurologist to check Gordon for autism, and to a hospital that referred them to Butterflies, a mental health program for very young children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Finally they learned the reason for their child’s distress — and the reason social service agencies that help families from China are facing a sharp rise in such developmental problems.
Like thousands of other Chinese immigrants responding to financial and cultural pressures, Liu and her husband, Tim Fang, had sent Gordon to live with his grandparents, thousands of kilometers away in Fujian Province, a few months after his birth in New York. Working long hours in the restaurant business, they had not brought him back to the US until he was old enough to attend all-day public preschool.
And now he saw them as strangers who had stolen him away to a strange land.
“The children that have that experience come back with tremendous needs,” said Nina Piros, director of early childhood programs at University Settlement, a nonprofit agency that estimates that 400 of the 1,000 children served by its Butterflies program are returnees from China. “They come here and they’re totally traumatized.”
Some act out in frightening and confusing ways, she said, banging their heads on walls, refusing to speak, or wandering aimlessly in the classroom. These signs of extreme trauma have often been misunderstood as symptoms of autism. But they are the marks of the emotional dislocations these young children have endured.
Less severely affected youngsters are helped through supportive workshops for their teachers and parents. But about two dozen in the Butterflies program need the kind of intensive therapy that eventually helped Gordon and his parents bond, said Andrea Bennett, director of Butterflies, which was started three years ago with money from the New York City Council.
The phenomenon of US-born children who spend their infancy in China has been known for years to social workers, who say it is widespread and worrying. About 8,000 Chinese-born women gave birth in New York last year, so the number of children at risk is substantial, according to the Chinese-American Planning Council, a social service agency that hopes to get a grant to educate parents about the pitfalls of the practice and help them find alternatives.
But no one tracks the numbers, and the issue has only recently seized the attention of early-childhood researchers like Yvonne Bohr, a clinical psychologist at York University in Toronto, who calls such children “satellite babies.”
Their repeatedly disrupted attachments to family members “could potentially add up to a mental health crisis for some immigrant communities,” Bohr wrote in an article in May in The Infant Mental Health Journal. She cited classic research like the work of Anna Freud, who found that young children evacuated during the London blitz were so damaged by separation from their parents that they would have been better off at home, in danger of falling bombs.
Bohr, who is undertaking a longitudinal study of families with satellite babies, cautions that the older research was shaped by Western values and expectations. Chinese parents, including university-educated professionals she has studied, are often influenced by cultural traditions: an emphasis on self-sacrifice for the good of the family, a belief that grandparents are the best caretakers, and a desire to ground children in their heritage.