AP NEWS

AP Investigation: Deported parents may lose kids to adoption

October 9, 2018
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Araceli Ramos walks with her five-year-old daughter, Alexa, in a park in San Miguel, El Salvador, on Aug. 18, 2018. An Associated Press investigation drawing on hundreds of court documents, immigration records and interviews in the U.S. and Central America identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families, without notifying their parents. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

As the deportees were led off the plane onto the steamy San Salvador tarmac, an anguished Araceli Ramos Bonilla burst into tears, her face contorted with pain: “They want to steal my daughter!”

It had been 10 weeks since Ramos had last held her 2-year-old, Alexa. Ten weeks since she was arrested crossing the border into Texas and U.S. immigration authorities seized her daughter and told her she would never see the girl again.

What followed — one foster family’s initially successful attempt to win full custody of Alexa — reveals what could happen to some of the infants, children and teens taken from their families at the border under a Trump administration policy earlier this year. The “zero-tolerance” crackdown ended in June, but hundreds of children remain in detention, shelters or foster care and U.S. officials say more than 200 are not eligible for reunification or release.

Federal officials insist they are reuniting families and will continue to do so. But an Associated Press investigation drawing on hundreds of court documents, immigration records and interviews in the U.S. and Central America identified holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents.

And today, with hundreds of those mothers and fathers deported thousands of miles away, the risk has grown exponentially.

States usually seal child custody cases, and the federal agencies overseeing the migrant children don’t track how often state court judges allow these kids to be given up for adoption. But by providing a child’s name and birthdate to the specific district, probate or circuit court involved, the AP found that it’s sometimes possible to track these children.

Alexa’s case began in November 2015 under the Obama administration, years before Trump’s family-separation policy rolled out. Her 15-month separation from her mother exposes the fragile legal standing of children under the care of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and a flawed, piecemeal system that can change the course of a child’s life.

It took 28 minutes for a judge in a rural courthouse near Lake Michigan to grant Alexa’s foster parents, Sherri and Kory Barr, temporary guardianship. Alexa’s mother and the little girl’s immigration attorney were not even notified about the proceedings.

Based on their experiences with Alexa, the Barrs had become convinced that Alexa’s mom was a bad mother and that the little girl would be abused if she were reunited with her.

“My wife and I are sick over this,” Kory Barr told the judge, who wished him good luck as he granted the foster parents’ request two days after Christmas.

The federal system that had custody of Alexa says the state courts never should have allowed foster parents to get that far, no matter how good their intentions. But each state court system, from New York to California, runs wardship and adoption proceedings differently — and sometimes there are even variations between counties.

In Missouri, an American couple managed to permanently adopt a baby whose Guatemalan mother had been picked up in an immigration raid. That seven-year legal battle terminating the mother’s parental rights ended in 2014. In Nebraska, another Guatemalan mother prevailed and got her kids back, but it took five years and over $1 million in donated legal work.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement and Bethany Christian Services, the agency that placed Alexa in foster care, would not comment on her case. But Bethany said foster parents are informed they’re not allowed to adopt migrant children.

Since the 1980s, however, Bethany acknowledged that nine of the 500 migrant children assigned to its foster program have been adopted by American families. The children, ages 3 to 18, were adopted after it was determined it wouldn’t be safe or possible for them to go back to their families; at least one asked to be adopted by his foster parents, and another was a trafficking victim, Bethany said.

“We never want families to be separated,” Bethany CEO Chris Palusky said. “That’s what we’re about, is bringing families together.”

John Sandweg, who headed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration, said he worries that many more migrant children recently taken from their families may never see them again.

“We have the kids in the U.S. and the parents down in Central America, and now they’ll bring all these child welfare agencies into play,” Sandweg said. “It’s just a recipe for disaster.”

In Ramos’ darkest days, she would lay on her bed, stare at the ceiling and sob, her hand on her stomach.

“This girl, she was here, in my womb,” she said. “We are meant to be together. Always.”

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Alexa’s mother was born in the middle of a bloody civil war in El Salvador that gave way to violent street crime. She was pregnant at 13; that daughter was raised by grandparents.

Starting at age 19, Ramos had four sons with another man over the course of a decade, followed by the arrival of Alexa in 2013. She and her daughter looked alike — both bright-eyed, with dark hair framing their smooth skin.

It was after the children’s father found another woman that the abuse began, Ramos said.

“The worst time was when he kicked me so hard it left a bruise and it never went away,” she later told an asylum officer. Without makeup, a dent in the center of her forehead is apparent.

Ramos went to a shelter, but said she became increasingly convinced that her former partner would track her down and kill her. She applied for a U.S. visa, she said, but got nowhere.

During a custody battle in their home city of San Miguel, Ramos said her children’s father filed false police reports, including one alleging that she encouraged a 17-year-old girl to have sex with an adult. With the help of his own mother, who told authorities her son had made up the accusations, she successfully cleared her name and the cases were dropped.

Yet it was that information — later deemed “outdated and unsubstantiated” by the U.S. Justice Department — that was used in a Michigan court as support for the argument that Alexa should be permanently separated from her mother.

Ramos scraped together $6,000 to pay a smuggler who could help her escape from the man she said warned her she’d “never be at peace.” On the monthlong, 1,500-mile pilgrimage, she carried Alexa, a change of clothes, diapers, cookies, juice and water.

The toddler was exhausted by the journey. She slumped for days in a backpack carrier when they walked, and dozed and fidgeted when they traveled by car. When she was sleepy and agitated, she insisted on being cradled in her mother’s arms.

After crossing the Rio Grande near Roma, Texas, Ramos and her 2-year-old were arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Their ordeal appeared nearly over, since domestic violence was then considered grounds for asylum.

In El Salvador, Ramos might earn $5 a day selling clothes or waitressing. In the U.S., she could earn more than that in an hour. Ramos yearned for a new beginning.

It took less than an hour for her hopes to shatter. The border agent screening her records spotted a red flag: She was a criminal, he said, charged in El Salvador. Alexa, crying, was pulled from her mother’s arms.

“They told me I would never see her again,” Ramos recalled.

Ramos said she begged agents to send Alexa to friends in Texas, but said they gave up when two calls went unanswered.

The departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services have not disputed that events could unfold that way in the federal system. DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said Tuesday that the agency had not yet been able to investigate Ramos’ claims, but “takes seriously our responsibility for those in our custody.”

Three days after Ramos’ separation from her daughter, court records show, the U.S. government labeled Alexa an “unaccompanied minor,” which meant she entered the bureaucracy for migrant youth, typically teens, who arrive in the U.S. alone. The toddler was issued a notice to appear on “a date to be set, at a time to be set, to show why you should not be removed from the United States.”

At 28 months, Alexa was intelligent and engaging, but her vocabulary was limited to Spanish words for colors, some numbers and her favorite foods.

She initially was placed with a Spanish-speaking foster family in San Antonio, Texas, who would call Ramos in the detention center and put Alexa on the phone. “Each time they called, I could not stop crying,” Ramos said. “Crying and crying, because I wanted to be with her.”

More than two weeks after their separation, ICE agents moved Ramos seven hours away to a rural Louisiana facility surrounded by high fences topped with coiled razor wire. While Alexa and her foster family decorated a Christmas tree, Ramos slept in a pod of bunkbeds.

Two months after her arrival there, Ramos used a translator to speak on the phone with an asylum officer who asked about her family, why she left El Salvador and what her children’s father might do if she went back. Alexa was safe, Ramos told the officer, but “I think he will kill me.”

The next day, Ramos got word that she had “demonstrated a credible fear of persecution or torture,” according to the asylum supervisor at the DHS.

Her case was assigned to Oakdale Immigration Court in Louisiana, where the three judges had denied 95 percent of all asylum requests that year, compared to the national average of about 50 percent. She said she called the list of pro bono lawyers she was provided, to no avail.

Without a lawyer, her chance at asylum slipped away. Like everyone else around her, she was being deported.

The federal government offers all deported parents the chance to take their children with them, but Ramos said she was ordered to sign a waiver to leave Alexa behind. “The agent put his hand on mine, he held my hand, he forced me to sign,” she said.

Immigration agents then handcuffed Ramos and put her on a plane south, soaring over the volcanos and jungles of Central America.

At the time, it was unusual for parents to be deported while their children remained behind in federal foster care, but that occurred again and again this summer. More than 300 parents were deported to Central America without their children this summer, many of whom allege they were coerced into signing paperwork they didn’t understand, affecting their rights to reunify with their children. Some parents also contended that U.S. officials told them their children would be given up for adoption.

“And the reality is that for every parent who is not located, there will be a permanent orphaned child, and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said in August while overseeing a lawsuit to stop family separations.

The AP asked the State Department, as well as embassy officials in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, whether they were working with deported parents to find their children in the U.S.

The State Department deferred to the DHS, which said in a state