Investigations Human Rights

‘No Hope for Me’: Women Stripped of Parental Rights After Minor Crimes

Sharona Coutts & Zoe Greenberg

The combination of mass incarceration and inflexible foster laws leads to an extraordinary, disproportionate punishment that overwhelmingly affects poor and minority women, an expert told Rewire.

This is the fourth article in Rewire’s Women, Incarcerated series. You can read the other pieces in the series that have been published so far here.

Five years ago, LaDonna Hopkins was caught stealing clothes from a store in Rock Island County, Illinois. She wasn’t stealing them to wear, but to sell on the street. Still in the grips of what would be an 11-year battle with crack cocaine, Hopkins had assessed her options, and theft seemed the lesser evil.

“When you’re in addiction, there’s only three things you can do,” she told Rewire. “You can rob somebody, or you can prostitute, or you can steal.”

After she was caught, Hopkins was sentenced to five years in Dwight state prison. She was pregnant at the time. She eventually served five months inside, and an additional two-and-a-half years in a women’s treatment center. The penalty may seem severe for a non-violent crime spurred by drug dependency, but for Hopkins the true punishment was not the prison term, but rather the permanent loss of her parental rights to her daughter.

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“When I gave birth, I was allowed to spend 48 hours with my daughter in the hospital, and then I was shipped back to prison,” she told Rewire. “She’s four now and I haven’t gotten any closer to getting her back, and I’ve been going to court for three-and-a-half years.”

LaDonna Hopkins and her children.

LaDonna Hopkins and her children.

Hopkins says she wanted to transfer to a prison unit that would have allowed her to keep her child, while also undergoing drug treatment, but she was denied access to the program. Because Hopkins wasn’t able to look after her daughter, a family member was awarded permanent custody—a decision Hopkins has been fighting for the past four years.

Since she was released from prison in mid-2010, Hopkins has completed her associate’s degree, and is pursuing her bachelor’s in applied behavioral science. She has lobbied the Illinois state legislature and spoken at public events, all while raising a 1-year-old daughter as a single mom in an apartment in southwest Chicago. Despite these successes, she says she remains mired in a maze of state laws that are designed to protect children, but lack flexibility for parents who have been incarcerated.

Once parental rights are severed, they are all but impossible to restore, meaning that parents who were incarcerated for minor crimes can be left suffering the consequences for a lifetime, no matter how radically they transform their lives.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around being sober and giving my child up,” Hopkins said.

As part of our Women, Incarcerated series, Rewire interviewed women who, like Hopkins, lost parental rights after being incarcerated for minor, non-violent crimes. Thousands of incarcerated women risk losing parental rights each year due to a combination of state and federal laws that are intended to protect children and speed up the adoption process. This risk is more pronounced for women of color.

Philip Genty, a professor at Columbia Law School who is a leading national authority on incarcerated parents, says it has become common for incarcerated mothers to face losing their parental rights.

“It is a very rare situation where a woman prisoner with a child in foster care has not been confronted with this,” he said.

Experts say there is an urgent need for a review of these laws to increase flexibility, and to move away from a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.

“Whenever you’re talking about child welfare, having something that has these very rigid timelines, that doesn’t take individual circumstances into consideration, is a problem,” said Genty. “In some cases, staying with a parent may not be perfect, but it’s a better situation than anyone else has for the child, so why would you want to deprive the child of this relationship in his or her life?”

A Federal Law With Unintended Consequences

The question of what to do for families in crisis has long plagued government officials, researchers, and community workers in the United States. The foster care system has been an imperfect back-up for struggling parents, and particularly for women, who are more likely to be a sole parent than men.

In the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of children were languishing in state foster care systems across the country, while at the same time potential adoptive parents were growing impatient at long waits.

In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), with the goal of speeding up the processes that kept children in the system for so long.

The new law set strict time limits on how long a child could stay in foster care before the state had to terminate a parent’s rights, and make the child eligible for adoption. If a child was in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the federal law required states to terminate parental rights or face the loss of generous federal funding for their programs.

The law requires parents to demonstrate an intention to reunify with their children in order to avoid losing parental rights. Experts say this has had unintended consequences for incarcerated parents, many of whom have found it virtually impossible to satisfy the act’s definition of “reunification,” which focuses on demonstrating continued contact with their children.

To be sure, some mothers are ill prepared or unable to care for their children at the time they are incarcerated; battling their own trauma and addiction, many struggle to care for themselves, let alone children. And a small percentage have committed serious or violent offenses, and may deserve to be confined, legal and family sciences experts on parental incarceration said in interviews with Rewire. The vast majority of people at risk of losing their parental rights, though, are serving time for minor, non-violent crimes, experts said.

And for those parents, it can be difficult to demonstrate continued contact from behind a prison wall.

Many state prisons are located in remote areas, far from the urban hubs where families of incarcerated parents often live. For example, it can take four hours to travel from New York City to the facilities that are located upstate. That kind of travel assumes money, access to transportation, and an adult companion for children—factors that are beyond the reach of many incarcerated parents.

“Visits are incredibly difficult at most facilities,” Columbia Law School’s Philip Genty said, calling most prison visiting centers an “afterthought.”

It’s challenging to determine how many incarcerated people have permanently lost their parental rights as a result of the ASFA. The majority of states and the federal system still do not routinely ask people whether they are parents of minor children during sentencing, experts told Rewire. This means both that there’s little information available about how many parents are locked up, and also that most jails and prisons fail to make sure incarcerated parents have real opportunities to maintain ties with their children.

Additionally, each state has its own foster care laws, and these laws are interpreted differently by county courts, which are often charged with determining whether and when to terminate a parent’s rights. To look at the national scope of the problem, one needs to examine the criminal justice system and the child welfare system at the county, state, and federal levels.

Nevertheless, some data is beginning to emerge, and it makes clear that the law has had disastrous results for many families, especially for poor people and people of color, whose communities are grossly over-represented in jails and prisons.

In New York, for example, one in seven children of incarcerated mothers will land in foster care, according to a 2013 New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services study based on a survey of 895 incarcerated people.

The report also found evidence of much more severe family disruption for the children of incarcerated mothers. Nearly 60 percent of children whose mothers were incarcerated were living with a grandparent, another relative, or in foster care; that applied to only 16 percent of kids whose fathers were incarcerated.

And women were far more likely than men to have their parental rights severed, the study found. Strikingly, 17 percent of mothers in the 2013 survey reported that their parental rights had already been terminated, whereas 10 percent of fathers had lost their parental rights.

The report concluded that New York should act to address “the differential impact that children with incarcerated mothers experience,” but the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which conducted the survey, could not tell Rewire what, if any, progress has been made.

Another study, by Charlene Wear Simmons and Emily Danker-Feldman, examined a decade of San Francisco’s child welfare adoption files from 1997 to 2007, and found that 15 to 20 percent of children in foster care in San Francisco have been affected by parental incarceration.

“It was very hard to read through the files. They’re just heartbreaking,” Simmons told Rewire.

The study determined that poor women and women of color were much more likely to be stripped of their rights to their children as a result of incarceration: Though Black adults comprise less than 7 percent of San Francisco’s population, nearly 60 percent of mothers who had their rights terminated in 2007 were Black.

“When you look at who is in the prison system, these are generally poor women, minority women,” said Simmons. “There’s a huge correlation between maternal incarceration, drug abuse, and termination of parental rights.”

It is difficult to determine how New York and San Francisco compare to other jursidictions, or to the federal prison system, due to a lack of data.

According to a recent report by the federal Administration for Children and Families, of the 402,000 children in foster care in 2013, nearly 60,000 were waiting to be adopted after the rights of all living parents had been terminated that year.

A spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families was unable to tell Rewire how many of those children’s parents were incarcerated at the time that their parental rights were terminated.

A 2003 paper found significant increases in the number of children whose parents were incarcerated while their rights were terminated during the late 1990s, at the peak of the war on drugs and following the introduction of the ASFA.

Although some experts told us that legislators were simply not thinking about incarcerated parents when they drafted the ASFA, Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union put it more bluntly.

“Quite frankly, it was a wholesale attack on the moms, and to be very honest, a wholesale attack on Black women.”

They Said There Was No Hope for Me”

Pamela C., a Colorado resident who asked Rewire not to use her last name in order to protect her children’s privacy, saw firsthand how the law punished her, instead of helping her to seek rehabilitation. (Rewire has independently verified her account with colleagues, and other publicly available materials.)

Pamela C

Pamela C.

Pamela’s story began shortly after the Adoption and Safe Families Act became law in 1997. In late November of that year, her husband died of a heart attack on the kitchen floor shortly after his 40th birthday, leaving Pamela to look after her son and daughter, who were 7 and 4 at the time.

Pamela’s grief compounded an undiagnosed mental health condition, and her drug use escalated. In early December, police arrived at the house. Pamela says they’d been told that she was dealing heroin, and while they never charged her with that offense, they did find a small quantity of the drug in her late husband’s dresser drawer. That’s when they took Pamela’s kids.

“After they took my kids, I lost my mind,” she said. “I was mad. I was not compliant. And so the caseworkers and I had absolutely the worst relationship you could imagine, because I thought they were playing a game that I shouldn’t have to play, because my kids were fine until all this happened.”

She was charged with possession of a small quantity of methamphetamine, but because of an earlier felony conviction arising from a serious car crash in the 1980s, she was sentenced to six years of confinement with an additional mandatory three years of parole.

Before going to prison, Pamela had been informed by social services that, because her children were in foster care, she would lose her parental rights to them unless she satisfied the requirements of the federal law. Like many incarcerated parents, Pamela found those requirements virtually impossible to satisfy.

“They wouldn’t let us talk to each other,” Pamela said. She says she received only one letter from her children each year, and despite writing multiple letters, she says she later learned that her children were not receiving them.

After 18 months in prison, Pamela received notice of a court hearing about the termination of her parental rights. She says she was not allowed to attend.

Two weeks later, another letter informed her that she no longer had any legal relationship to her children. They would be adopted.

“There were never any incidents of abuse,” Pamela said. “They just took my kids because there was no place for them to go. They said there was no hope for me, for rehabilitation.”

That decision ignited a 14-year struggle to regain her relationship with her son and daughter, which Pamela ultimately won. She completed multiple treatment stages and parenting courses, and is now working in an advocacy position at a Colorado nonprofit. She lives with both her children, who are coping with the mental and physical trauma of years in the foster system.

In other words, Pamela has rehabilitated herself, and now works to reform corrections systems that corrode families like hers.

“I didn’t need to go to prison,” she said. “What I needed was to get help. I needed to go to treatment.”

It’s a refrain that is far too common to researchers who have studied the collision of the criminal justice and child welfare systems.

“No one’s helping the mothers,” said Charlene Wear Simmons, the San Francisco-based researcher. “The system has given up on them. The sad thing of course is that many of them go on to have more children and they lose those children too. From a system’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense.”

On a Small Scale, States Make Promising Reforms

In the past few years, several states—some looking to save money in the wake of the Great Recession—have increased funding for community-based programs, drug courts, and prison nurseries, which are substantially cheaper than confinement.

New York, for instance, has shuttered correctional facilities, and initiated programs that divert people, especially mothers, from incarceration.

One such project is Justice Home, which is run by the Women’s Prison Association, a nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Justice Home launched last summer. It’s an intensive program intended to prevent the removal of children to foster care by working with mothers who are facing a minimum of six months of incarceration for a felony charge.

Alexandra Villano, director of strategic initiatives for the Women’s Prison Association, said the program grew out of years of experience running residential alternatives to incarceration.

“We decided to go in that direction because there was increased understanding that the point at which moms were more likely to enter the criminal justice system was when their kids were removed from their care,” she told Rewire.

Each program is tailored to the individual woman, and might include one-on-one or group services such as anger management training, housing support, therapy, or substance abuse treatment. Even with these intensive services, the Justice Home program costs on average less than $20,000 per participant each year, compared to the $129,000 it typically costs to send a woman to jail and her children to foster care, not to mention the incidental social, physical, and psychological costs, Villano said.

The program has worked with 43 women so far, and has discovered that, even at this early stage, the risk of committing another crime declined by 45 percent for its participants.

Similar projects have been developed in other jurisdictions, and a collection of states—New York, Washington, and California—have in recent years passed laws to loosen ASFA’s rigid timelines, which particularly hurt incarcerated mothers.

Joyce Arditti, professor of human development at Virginia Tech who specializes in families and incarceration, says incarcerated parents who lose custody of their children as a result of committing minor, non-violent offenses are suffering a violation of their human rights.

“It is a human rights issue because parenthood is an inalienable right,” Arditti said in an interview with Rewire. Not all parents are competent, and some deserve to be incarcerated, she said. But the problem in the United States is that the combination of mass incarceration and inflexible foster laws leads to an extraordinary, disproportionate punishment that overwhelmingly affects poor and minority women.

“It’s a form of punishment … that they are forcibly separated from their children and precluded from participating in family life in a meaningful way,” Arditti said.

Analysis Human Rights

From Protected Class to High-Priority Target: How the ‘System Is Rigged’ Against Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Tina Vasquez

Vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation.

This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.

Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.

Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.

“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.

ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.

Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”

The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”

In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”

DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.

Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagersSantos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.

Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.

But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”

In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if all cases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.

“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.

Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”

Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”

There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.

Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.

“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.

Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”

While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.

If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children. 

This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.

Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”

Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.

Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.

Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.

“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.

Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”

Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.

There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Post reported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests. 

Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on baila “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.

In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.

Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.

“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.

While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.

As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.

Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.

Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.

Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently told Indy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”

It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.

“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”

Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.

Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.

In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.

Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.

“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.

“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.

In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”


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