By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In the summer of 1990, a juvenile court placed the three siblings under DCF supervision (then called Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, or HRS) while they continued to live at home. Two years later, despite expressing reluctance to assume custody of the boys because of their "unclear alien status," DCF physically removed them from their mother's care, separated the brothers, and dispatched them to foster homes. A few months later, in July 1992, DCF again expressed concern over the trio's residency status. An interoffice memorandum identified the boys as "illegal aliens" who were therefore not eligible to receive Medicaid. At this point DCF should have petitioned the court to declare them eligible for J-visas.
Internal DCF paper trails reveal that during the nine years Kyle remained in foster care, a gamut of DCF employees, from rank and file to top administrators, knew the boy was undocumented. Caseworkers, foster-care supervisors, a program administrator, and others had identified Kyle as an illegal alien. His two guardian ad litems knew as well. (Guardian ad litems are court-appointed volunteers who advocate for children and represent them in court.) Both pressed DCF to take action. So did a Broward juvenile court.
On July 6, 1994, a month and a half before DCF transferred Kyle to a boys' home in Georgia, Frank M. Beisler, the youth's first guardian ad litem, submitted a written report to the court during Kyle's twice-yearly review. In it he expressed concerns about the teenager's criminal activities; by age thirteen Kyle had already been charged with car theft, possession of stolen property, and resisting arrest without violence. Beisler also recommended DCF obtain legal residency status for Kyle. He had contacted Susan Satler, a pro bono attorney who was preparing to file a J-visa application with INS on behalf of Kyle.
According to the review, Satler had received all but one of the necessary forms. DCF was completing the final form and had indicated to Beisler it would arrange for the necessary physical examination and required head shots of Kyle. But DCF didn't complete these simple final steps. "They acted with reckless indifference to the rights of this young man," says Alan Mishael, a child-welfare attorney who is preparing to file suit in federal court on Kyle's behalf.
A month later, bereft of a green card and without a say in the matter, Kyle was uprooted. DCF moved him to the Mel Blount Youth Home located in the Georgia wilderness. The closest town, Vidalia, was seven miles away. During the four years Kyle lived in near-seclusion, his mother visited once. She wrote him three letters, and called him on average three days per week. Kyle never saw his brothers. Indeed, according to Irving Reisfeld, Kyle's second guardian ad litem from 1995 to 1998, contact or even communication with Kyle was next to impossible at the boot-camplike retreat for ungovernable boys.
A communications breakdown was the least of the problems at Mel Blount. Complaints of cruel punishment had been surfacing since 1990. Among other things teenage boys claimed staff members beat them, rationed their food, and made them smash rocks with twenty-pound sledgehammers in the middle of the night. On October 29, 1999, the Georgia Department of Human Resources concluded one of several investigations and planned on revoking Mel Blount's license. But according to Clint Blount, Mel Blount's director, it may not have to close. As of January there were still three South Florida kids residing at Mel Blount. Broward DCF would not respond to questions about the questionable facility with which they contract.
In 1997 a Broward judge finally signed an order declaring Kyle eligible to receive a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa. But any further efforts beyond a judicial order died there. In the meantime Kyle seemed to be flourishing. According to Mel Blount progress reports from 1997 and 1998, he was doing well in school. Evaluations describe him as a hard worker and role model to his peers. In 1998 he led some 900 runners in the six-mile annual Vidalia Onion Run. He came in second. He won first place in Mount Vernon's Heritage Run.
On October 26, 1998, DCF reported to the juvenile court in Broward that Kyle didn't have any relatives willing to care for him; he would remain in foster care through June 30, 1999. Yet this cut-off date could have been extended had DCF abided by the laws. With a J-visa Kyle could have stayed in foster care until the age of 21. All he had to do was remain in school, work part-time, and participate in the independent-living program. During the court hearing, DCF encouraged all parties involved in Kyle's case to continue supporting the young man in his academic endeavors, knowing they would be short lived. Deena Gayhart, DCF's foster-care supervisor in Broward, officially closed the young man's case on January 9, 1999.
In March of that year, as Kyle was preparing to go to school, Mel Blount's assistant director Anne Jackson walked into his room, presented him with a suitcase and open sack for packing his belongings, handed him money for a Greyhound bus ticket, and told him to leave. Although Kyle had resided in Mel Blount for almost five years, Jackson gave him just fifteen minutes to depart. The eighteen-year-old didn't have time to say goodbye to his friends and had no room to take his track trophies with him.