In May, 30-year-old Paula was one of almost 1,000 detainees held at the time inside the Willacy Detention Center, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. For more than a dozen years, Paula lived with a man 20 years her senior who she says brought her to the U.S. after he met her in Mexico. The man presented himself to the outside world as her partner, but behaved more like her owner, keeping her on a short leash and forcing her to work without pay cleaning the homes of his family and contacts. He forbade her from having contact with her family in Mexico and she has not spoken with them for more than a decade. An attorney who represents her says she is a victim of human trafficking.
She had seven children with him since she came to the U.S. One of her daughters was very ill and at intervals required a machine to breath. Paula tearfully recalled the night that, while the man slept, she piled her children into his vehicle and drove away. Because of the hasty escape, Paula could not take her daughter’s breathing machine.
The next day, knowing that her girl could not survive without this machine, she drove to the closest CPS office and made the decision to voluntarily place her daughter in foster care until she could arrange to get the breathing machine or a buy a new one. She took her other children to a domestic violence shelter. But several months later, a sheriff’s deputy arrived and arrested Paula, charging her with neglect because she’d failed to provide her ill child with necessary care. She was brought to the local jail and the rest of her children were placed in foster care.
Rather than being released on bond or spending a short time in jail, Paula was soon moved to Willacy Detention Centre. When ARC interviewed her, she had already been at Willacy for seven months, with no word of when she might be released or deported. Victims of trafficking may be at particular risk of having their children placed in foster care if they are detained. As an attorney familiar with the case explained:
“Trafficking victims are by definition isolated. They have no support network at all. A lot of immigrants have extended networks, but trafficking victims don’t. Because of that, there’s nobody to take the kids to.”
Writing for Colorlines, ARC President Rinku Sen noted that:
“Mothers, in particular, are faced with impossible choices in this set up. We recorded stories of domestic violence victims who are supposed to be protected from deportation under the Violence Against Women Act. Instead, these women are arrested along with their abusers, thrown in detention, and then deported while their kids went into the system. If you’re such a woman and you report the abuse, you might be deported, since some law enforcement clearly didn’t get the VAWA memo. Or if you decide not to report because you wonder who will take care of your kids if you’re deported, then you can be charged with failure to protect the kids from an abuser. There’s no choice there, just a bunch of bad options that all separate you from your kids.”
To date, there has been no national data available on the numbers of children impacted by the intersection of immigration enforcement and child welfare systems.
Trafficking Victim or Criminal? Depends on Your Age
Image byShattered Families cover
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