On Tuesday evening, after two tiring days of court hearings, Felipe and Marie Montes walked out of the Alleghany County, NC courthouse with their future still uncertain. The protracted case over the Montes's parental rights and the custody of their children will continue another day.
When Felipe Montes was deported to Mexico on December 3, 2010 for traffic violations, his three young U.S. citizen children were removed from their mother Marie Montes's custody and placed in foster care. She could not support the family without her husband, who was the primary earner and caretaker for the kids. From Mexico, Felipe Montes insisted that if his children could not stay with his wife, they should be reunited with him. Marie Montes, a U.S. citizen, agreed. But the Alleghany County Department of Social Services refused to place the kids in Mexico, arguing that the children would be better off in foster care with local families than returned to their father.
The hearing this week was supposed to be decisive, with a judge ruling on Felipe and Marie Montes's parental rights and the fate of their children. But the hearing dragged on past the allotted time and has now been extended. Additional days have yet to be scheduled.
"I'll have to wait again," Felipe Montes said, as he stood on the courthouse steps beside his court appointed attorney and a representative of the Mexican Consulate for the Carolinas.
After Colorlines.com broke Felipe Montes's story in February, the Latino advocacy organization Presente.org launched a national petition calling on the Alleghany County Department of Social Services to reunify Felipe and his children. More than 21,000 people signed. Soon, with help from the Mexican Consulate, Felipe Montes applied for permission to re-enter the country to attend his hearings. In an exceptionally rare move, federal immigration officials allowed Montes to enter the United States for 90 days on what's called a humanitarian parole.
Montes arrived in North Carolina on August 1, in time for an August 10 hearing. But that hearing was postponed, and then postponed again, after the judge excused himself due to illness.
The terms of Montes's parole require that he leave the country on October 28 to return to Mexico.
"My concern is that we will not be able to finish this hearing before he has to go back," Donna Shumate, Felipe Montes's court appointed attorney, said shortly after the hearing.
The Alleghany County Department of Social Services previously argued against reunifying the children with their father, saying that Felipe's house in Tamaulipas, Mexico is not adequate for the children because it's built with concrete floors and lacks running water.
The Montes's three children, one-year-old Angel, three-year-old Adrian and four-year-Isaiah, were removed from Marie Montes's custody weeks after Felipe was first detained. The child welfare department determined that the she could not take care of the kids alone--she's long struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues and without Felipe's income, she could not manage to support the children.
Last year, the child welfare department asked County Judge Michael Duncan's permission to stop reunification efforts with Marie Montes. The judge agreed, saying she'd failed to complete required parenting and drug treatment classes. In court on Tuesday, according to her attorney, the judge denied Marie Montes's motion to have visits with her children reinstated. She has not seen them for a year.
Felipe Montes, on the other hand, was allowed to begin regular visits with his children after he returned. No allegations of neglect or mistreatment have ever been leveled against the father.
The youngest of the three children was born weeks after Montes was first detained, so the initial visit was the first time the father met his baby. And as I reported in August, it took the oldest boy a few minutes to be sure that the man in front of him was indeed his father:
When Montes walked into the [Department of Social Services] room where the older two of his three children sat, he says his 4-year-old son, the oldest of his three, asked,
"You're my daddy, right? You come from Mexico right?"
"Yeah, I came from Mexico," Montes said. "I talk to you every Monday, every week on the phone." The boy started to smile. ...
As Felipe left the visitation room where he saw his two children, his four-year-old asked his father, "Will you take us with you, daddy, will you adopt us?"
"No," he replied, holding back tears, "I don't have to adopt you, you're my babies, you'll go with me as soon as I fix everything."
The Montes case gained wide national attention after Colorlines.com broke the story and reporters from national press gathered yesterday with cameras and note pads in front of the courthouse waiting for a decision. Near the end of the day yesterday, a woman hurried past the cameras, up the steps of the courthouse.
"I'm looking for Felipe Montes," she urged, introducing herself to me and other reporters as a local pastor. "I just heard about what happened. I can't believe this is happening to Felipe." She ran into the courthouse to find the courtroom.
The pastor told me she'd known Felipe Montes several years earlier when she worked on a part time basis at his children's daycare center. She says a non-profit ministry she runs also helped the family buy Christmas presents one year.
"I was just across the street and someone told me about this case," she said. "When I heard his name I just had to come over here and say something. He's an exceptional father, always nurturing them."