A California Senate committee yesterday voted in support of a bill to prevent the separation of families when children of deported parents are stuck in the child welfare system. The bill follows the release last year of "Shattered Families," a major national investigation by Colorlines.com and its publisher the Applied Research Center that provides the first national estimate of the number of children in foster care whose parents have been detained or deported. Nearly a quarter of these estimated 5,100 children are California residents. The bill is the first piece of state legislation to address the shattered families problem.
"As a parent I think it's unfathomable that parental rights can be terminated simply because of immigration status," the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles told me yesterday. "It's completely unacceptable, but it is the reality that many parents face because of the current immigration system."
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In 2011, over 22 percent of the nearly 400,000 people deported were the parents of United States citizen children, according to federal data acquired by the Applied Research Center through a Freedom of Information Act request. When their children are in the foster care system, these families are often separated for long periods of time. Some are permanently torn apart when juvenile courts terminate parental rights.
Because child welfare law is legislated by the states, as long as federal authorities continue to deport parents, states have the responsibility to ensure these families are not permanently separated. But no state currently has legislation that explicitly protects these families. The impact of this policy silence is compounding.
Last week, a recently deported man now living near the U.S.-Mexico border, and who asked his name not be used, told me that he had lost all contact with his young children while in detention. While he was detained in federal immigration detention, his wife in California passed away. Their three children "disappeared," he said. He now believes they've been adopted, though he never received any information from the child welfare department.
Over lunch in the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora, he told me, "I lost my wife and they took almost three years from my life in detention. And now they took my children? I have nothing left."
Senate Bill 1064, which passed out of the California Senate Human Services Committee yesterday, would authorize juvenile court judges to provide detained or deported parents additional time to reunify with their children. Currently, under California law, if a child has been out of his or her parents' custody for a year, the child welfare agency may move to terminate parental rights and put the child up for adoption. Our investigation found that when parents are detained or deported, however, they're often unable to participate in court hearings or complete required tasks like parenting classes. As a result, the time clock passes them by and their rights may be terminated for no fault of their own.
"My constituents have confronted this on a very personal level," De Leon said, mentioning one of a number of cases he says his office has encountered. "One of my constituents, a Nicaraguan woman, was charged with neglect as a result of her detention. She was deported and her parental rights were terminated."
The bill also requires state child welfare authorities to offer guidance to counties about how to establish agreements with foreign consulates. The Colorlines.com investigation found that children in foster care were never returned to their deported parents unless the consulate from the parent's country of origin is involved in the reunification process. Consulates can help parents to access services in their country of origin and can function as a liaison between deported mothers and fathers and the child welfare department. Most California counties have not established such agreements.
The Reuniting Immigrant Families Act, as the bill is called, would help to address an additional problem uncovered in the Shattered Families report, namely that child welfare departments often refuse to place children with undocumented caregivers, including their own relatives. As a result, children in foster care may end up in the care of strangers rather than with grandparents, aunts, uncles or other family members. The bill prohibits the consideration of immigration status as a factor in making foster care placement decisions.
Yali Lincroft, of the children's advocacy organization First Focus, testified in support of the bill at the committee hearing. "While the debate about immigration reform is controversial," she said, "services to children should not be. SB 1064 reflects the fundamental principal that all children deserve protection regardless of immigration status."
Echoing this, Mr. De Leon told me, "Regardless of their economic or legal status, parenthood trumps all. But this is an Alice in Wonderland nightmare: you're in the system, nobody is listening, nobody can hear you and that fundamental thing is taken away."
"We want to change that," De Leon added.
SB 1064 also includes a provision that is beyond the scope of the Shattered Families investigation. It would provide guidance to child welfare workers on how to help undocumented children in foster care gain lawful status through the Special Immigrant Juvenile program. The federal program applies only to children who cannot be reunified with their parents.
The bill now moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider whether to send SB 1064 to the Senate floor. De Leon hopes the bill could spread even further.
"If we can do it in California," De Leon said, "there's hope it can be done in other states too."