Deported Parents Struggle To Regain Custody

Dec 31, 2013

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're still talking about a political issue now, but now we want to talk about some of the people affected by the politics of the moment. Another way to say this is we want to look at the people behind the numbers. NPR has been looking back at some of the most important stories of 2013 through the numbers that have come to signify those stories, and we decided to talk about immigration. There are a lot of numbers related to that story, say, 11 million - that's the number of undocumented people in the U.S. - or 368,000 - that's the number deported this year alone. And then there's the number 5,000.

That is an estimate of the number of children who've been placed in foster care because one or both of their parents have been deported. We wanted to talk more about this, so we caught up with Candi Mayes. She's the director of the Dependency Legal Group of San Diego. That's a nonprofit law firm that represents many children of deportees in court, and she's with us now. Candi Mayes, thank you so much for joining us.

CANDI MAYES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us for additional perspective is Jill Replogle of KPBS in San Diego. She's a reporter with our Fronteras Desk, which covers immigration and border issues in the Southwest. Jill Replogle, thank you so much for joining us as well.

JILL REPLOGLE: Thank you. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Candi Mayes, let me start with you. If a person is apprehended by the immigration authorities and that person is a parent, what happens next?

MAYES: Kids usually go home to an empty house. Some parents will try to make arrangements with relatives to let them know, if they can, that they've been picked up so that someone can take care of their child, or they'll tell the agents and CPS will go and pick those kids up. In probably half of the cases, the kids end up going to a neighbor because they're hungry, and then the neighbor will end up getting CPS involved.

MARTIN: Jill, as a journalist, what have you seen?

REPLOGLE: Well, I interviewed a couple different families - parents who had been deported and who were already in Mexico and working through family court to get their children back. One couple had been caught stealing toys at a store. They were thrown in jail, and then they were put in immigration proceedings. And they had left their kids with the husband's mother, but CPS got involved somewhere in the process there. And the grandmother of the kids wanted to keep the children.

And so that triggered a custody debate in family court. One of the families that I spoke with - the parents who were living in Tijuana and trying to get their kids back - really talked about how frustrating it was for them not to be able to be physically present at their hearings for their child custody case. You know, they couldn't see the judge. They rarely had contact with the social worker because she would not come to the border to meet with them. And so each parent has a lawyer who is present at the proceedings, but they didn't.

They would get a report afterwards. It's a pretty indirect process. Contact is by phone, sometimes by Skype more and more often, and that's important, but it's really hard for them to be able to physically present themselves and, you know, make their case.

MARTIN: Candi, where do you typically get involved, and what are the scenarios that you tend to see?

MAYES: We get involved when a case comes into juvenile court because Child Protective Services is involved. And so we represent the children and the parents who are trying to reunify with them. In most cases, what we see, the children are United States citizens, but the parents are not. The children need a place to live. They end up in either foster care or relative care, and then we work with the parents to try to help them reunify with them. And they're usually on one side of the border, and the child is here on the other side. And so visitation can be very tricky. Services to help the parents get prepared to have that child back in a safe way is going to be, you know, something that we have to work on. So we represent them in trying to cross all those hurdles, I guess.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about what happens to children placed in foster care after their parents are deported. Our guests are attorney Candi Mayes and KPBS reporter Jill Replogle, who has been following this. Jill, you met parents who were trying to get their children back after they were deported, and I think it might be surprising to many people listening to this to find out how hard that can be.

REPLOGLE: Those cases are extremely complicated and often long here in this country. So now imagine if you're on the other side of the border. There are two sets of child welfare service agencies that you're going through. So parents on the Mexican side of the border are going through DIF, which is the Mexican version of child welfare services. They're the ones who are doing home visits, sometimes setting them up with substance abuse treatment or parenting classes.

And then that information gets transferred over to child welfare services on this side of the border. And the parents may have - if they're in court proceedings, they have a lawyer on the U.S. side of the border. They're dealing with a judge and social workers who are working with their case. And so there are two sets of bureaucracy that they are going through to try to get their children back.

MARTIN: Candi, you were also telling us that there's a time limit that parents have to meet in order to regain custody of their children, particularly to prove fitness to have custody of the children, and then that can be difficult if you've been detained, for example. So the clock is still ticking.

MAYES: Yes. In California, the statutory timeframe to reunify - the maximum amount of time you can have is 18 months. And in some cases, it can be as little as 6 months, depending on the age of the child. The minute that the child comes into custody and - CPS custody, I mean - and there's a court case open, that clock starts ticking. And so if you have a very young child and you are working on a six-month timeframe, it can be nearly impossible for that parent to do what they need to do in order to get out of custody and establish a home for that child to return to.

MARTIN: Jill, do we have any sense of the big picture here? I mean, 5,000 kids is not a small number.

REPLOGLE: Child welfare services is fragmented in this country, and that's the way it's set up. It's set up by county. There are various organizations that are sort of working on trying to get a bigger picture, but we really have just anecdotal stories right now of what's happened to particular families.

MARTIN: Candi, I'm going to ask you this. There are people who will be listening to this and who will say, you know what, that's a shame, but you broke the law. And people who break the law, there are consequences, and the consequence is often separation from family members. And that's sad, but that's the way it is. And so what would you say?

MAYES: It is true that there are consequences to your behavior, and I certainly am not justifying anyone's criminal activity. However, in this country, there is no rule that says if you break the law, you lose your child. If you get caught stealing toys from a store, in Jill's example, you are going to have a fine. You may have a short amount of jail time, and then you're going to be back with your family. The consequence is not going to be you never seeing your child again. But for these families, that very often can be the result of a very small infraction. It can have very dire consequences that really do not fit with what the circumstances were that brought the case to the attention.

MARTIN: The parental bond is permanently severed. Do we know that for a fact?

MAYES: There are cases where that has been true. And I know that for a fact, yes. I don't know the numbers, but I know that it has happened.

MARTIN: Candi, what response do you get from people when you talk about this issue, you know, publicly?

MAYES: People have a very emotional reaction to the topic of immigration. It's a very hot political topic right now, but people also have very strong opinions whether or not they know a lot about it. Most people feel like the children need to be here if they're American citizens. Although, I don't know that they really fully understand what that means to permanently separate a child from their parent. And then there are other people that I talk to that feel like, if the parent's deported, send the child with them and let the other country deal with it, regardless of whether or not they're American citizens.

And often I hear people say, well, they're American citizens, they can come back when they're adults if they want to. You know, that's kind of a final solution to them, and they feel like that's adequate. So there's lots of different ways that people look at the situation. What I don't find is anyone that doesn't have an opinion about it. Everyone has something to say on the topic.

MARTIN: Interesting. Is there anything we missed? Is there anything we should've asked about that we didn't?

REPLOGLE: This is Jill. Immigration and customs enforcement put out this memo in August sort of directing agents at the local level to basically do a better job of finding out if people that they take into custody have kids and sort of helping facilitate that process. And I think Candi has some interesting things to say about that. I haven't had that much, you know - I haven't really followed up on that. But it's, you know - it'd be good to kind of - to talk about that a little bit.

MAYES: It's my understanding that we're waiting for them to fill the family facilitator-type position. That's going to hopefully be a liaison for Health and Human Services as well as the attorneys who work for me here in San Diego who represent these families to connect the children to the parent while they're in custody. You know, very often it's difficult for these kids - they just want to know their parents are OK, and if they can't at least talk to them and hear their voice, it's very difficult for them to believe that they are OK.

MARTIN: Why can't they talk to their parents?

MAYES: Parents often are not able to access the telephone for a number of days, but while they're in custody, it takes a while for them to actually be allowed to make a phone call out. Even if you make a phone call in, if they're still in processing, it's very often difficult to connect with that parent on the phone. Even the attorneys have a difficult time, and it can sometimes take days. So which, for an adult, an attorney, waiting for a couple days to connect to their client is not that big of a deal. But for a 6-year-old, it's forever to wait for three days to hear from their mother that she's OK.

MARTIN: Candi Mayes is the director of the nonprofit Dependency Legal Group of San Diego. Jill Replogle is with KBPS in San Diego where she's a reporter with the Fronteras Desk covering immigration and border issues. They were both with us from the studios of KPBS in San Diego. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MAYES: Thank you, Michel.

REPLOGLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.