Far from border, families separated in Georgia

AJC EXCLUSIVE: Deported parents may find it difficult to get their children back from foster care.
The Trump Administration policy of separating immigrant parents from their children at the border sparked protests across the country this summer, including this demonstration outside the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in June in Washington, D.C. Demonstrators including U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Al Green (D-TX), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Trump Administration policy of separating immigrant parents from their children at the border sparked protests across the country this summer, including this demonstration outside the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in June in Washington, D.C. Demonstrators including U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Al Green (D-TX), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For more than a year, a Honduran woman has been trying to get Georgia to return her four small children.

She was deported in 2017. But the children are in foster care here — and so far, the state hasn’t agreed to give them back.

As the family’s separation drags on, the mother has grown desperate, the Honduran consul general of Atlanta said.

While the separation of children from their immigrant parents at the border created a national uproar this summer, similar separations have been taking place hundreds of miles away from those border crossings. In Georgia when a parent is deported or detained, children may be placed in foster care if another parent or relative isn't available to care for them. When that happens, the family may have to endure a long separation while the parent goes through a difficult process to try to win their child back, according to lawyers and officials of other countries who get involved in the custody cases.

In the case of the Honduran mother, a judge won’t even be able to consider the children’s fate until a hearing scheduled for October. The consulate said the case has faced a series of delays, the most recent because Georgia apparently misplaced a key document when a new case worker took over.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Angelina Maria Williams Guillen, an official at the Honduran consulate in Atlanta who has been working on the case for months, providing all the necessary documents to show that the mother is fit to care for her children.

When a child is a U.S. citizen, as is the youngest of the Honduran woman’s children, the separation can last for months, even years. Georgia doesn’t have a needed policy to reunite deported parents when their children are U.S citizens and end up in foster care, advocates say. In some cases, advocates say, judges and case workers argue that children who were born in the United States are better off in foster care in the U.S. than with deported parents who were forced back to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador.

“To us, that is a very large concern,” said F. Javier Diaz, the consul general of Mexico in Atlanta.

Tom Rawlings, interim director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services, was appointed just a month ago, said it is a significant issue and one he has already started working to address. "It's important to get this straightened out because it's an issue of human rights and it's an issue of family rights," said Rawlings, who previously was director of the Office of the Child Advocate.

Tom Rawlings, interim director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, said he is working to address policy gaps involving cases where children of deported immigrant children are placed in foster care. DFCS should work to keep families together, he told the AJC.

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Rawlings became personally familiar with the problem when he was in private practice as an attorney and occasionally handled cases involving children for the Mexican consulate in Atlanta. “We need to remember that just because a parent is deported, that does not justify the termination of that parent’s relationship with the child,” Rawlings said.

“Borders don’t determine your parental ability.”

Battling for kids

Children aren't placed in foster care every time a parent is detained or deported. If someone is arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency lets the parent make the call on who should take custody of any children, said spokesman Bryan D. Cox. Often, another parent or relative in the U.S. takes the kids.

If a parent is a sole caregiver, Cox said ICE considers that when deciding whether or not to detain the person. If ICE does take a parent into custody and the parent does not name someone to take the children, then state child welfare officials are brought in, he said.

For kids who do end up in foster care, a complicated system kicks in involving case workers, foster parents, attorneys and a judge.

Some families find themselves in a battle with the state over their parental rights and can face unrealistic requirements, given that the parent cannot legally return to the U.S. for hearings or other requirements, said Bernadette Olmos, an Atlanta lawyer who has represented immigrant parents in family law cases.

DFCS does not track the number of foster care cases that involve deportations or detentions of immigrant parents.

The Mexican consulate in Atlanta does track its case and said it is frequently contacted by parents seeking help. The consulate said that it has gotten involved in dozens of these custody cases in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, with many taking years to complete.

Since 2015, the consulate has taken temporary custody of children in 28 cases so that it can fly children to Mexico to be reunited with their parents. The consul general has also opened more than 30 cases since 2015 involving Georgia families whose children were taken into state custody.

The state’s only policy on uniting children with their deported parents deals with children who are not U.S. citizens.

Diaz said he had proposed two years ago that DFCS sign an agreement which would establish protocols for getting the consulate involved in cases. The consulate says it isn’t always contacted and sometimes only finds out about a case if the deported parent contacts the consulate.

Rawlings told the AJC that he was aware of the need for this agreement and started working on it during his first week in office. He said he hopes to “get that signed as soon as possible.”

What’s best for child?

What lawyers and advocates especially want to change is the notion that living in the United States is more valuable than being raised by your own parent.

Javier Diaz, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta, says the consulate isn’t always contacted when children of deported parents are placed in state foster care here.

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Diaz said that in some cases, the consulate observed a prejudice against sending a child to Mexico. “The best option for a child is to be reunited with his or her immediate family, and that option should be exhausted before exploring any other,” Diaz said.

Ashley Willcott, an attorney who has spent a career on cases involving child advocacy, said she has also seen DFCS officials and courts in Georgia that opposed sending U.S. citizen kids to be with their parents in Mexico.

"Children need to go with their parents, that's the reality, so long as there's no neglect or abuse by the parents," Willcott said.

Georgia’s juvenile court judges decide the cases. Steve Teske, a longtime juvenile court judge in Clayton County, said he has a pending case involving four little girls who are now in foster care because their mother is in detention in the U.S. while her immigration status is being decided.

Teske said the cases can be difficult for U.S. citizen kids whose deported parents are back in a home country that is completely foreign to the child and where the parents may not make as much money as they did in the United States. He’s heard arguments made by social workers who question whether a U.S. citizen child in foster care should be turned over to a deported parent.

“The comment will come up,” Teske said, “do we really want to send a kid back to El Salvador or wherever with what we have heard about the conditions down there and political unrest and do we have an obligation to protect this child because the child is a U.S. citizen?”

Teske said he doesn’t usually buy this type of argument when the parents want their children back and can care for them.

"We have to keep in mind that there is a growing amount of research that is showing us that the parent-child bond is so great that most other things — particularly like living in poor conditions — are overcome by that strong parent-child bonding," he said.

Even in cases where judges and case workers support family reunification, though, the paperwork demands, complicated bureaucracy and court dates can sometimes make for an arduous process for deported parents. If the four Honduran children are eventually allowed to leave the U.S. and be reunited with their mother, they will have spent more than a year away from her in two different foster homes, the consul general said.

Rawlings, the DFCS interim director, said he’s trying to address the policy gaps and even work with ICE to discuss the needs of families when a parent is being held in detention due to immigration issues. But some of the most important changes, he said, will be working with the front-line staff at DFCS.

In most Georgia counties, the cases are not routine, and some DFCS workers may never have worked with a consulate or been in contact with child welfare workers in another country. He wants the staff to view those cases like the ones they handle more often, where a parent lives in another state.

“The question should never be one of – is the United States a better place to live?” Rawlings said. “It should be how do we keep this family together.”