Orphans of the State

For countless undocumented immigrant kids, America is not the land of puppies and Disney trips, but the land of neglect

Upon arriving in Fort Lauderdale, Kyle tried without success to speak with his foster care caseworker, Gary Reynolds. But Reynolds's supervisor informed him that since he was now eighteen years old, there was nothing else DCF could do for him. Then Kyle telephoned his guardian ad litem, Irving Reisfeld, who in turn contacted DCF lawyer LaVerne Pinkney. He asked her if Kyle could be reinstated into foster care. Pinkney delegated the inquiry to Deborah Guller, her assistant. In a letter to Reisfeld, Guller wrote: "It is important that [Kyle] make some decisions as to his own immigration status; perhaps hire an attorney, as he is no longer a minor and does not meet the criteria for a juvenile visa."

Had Kyle received a J-visa while in foster care, says Reisfeld, he would not have been pushed out. "It's all about money," Reisfeld asserts. "DCF must have stopped funding him. When he turned eighteen, Mel Blount had no reason to keep him."

In November 1999 police arrested Kyle for violating his probation on charges of cocaine possession. "He wouldn't be in jail today if he had a green card when he was discharged from foster care," says Bernard Perlmutter, a UM law professor. "He had no choice but to resort to criminal activity. It's not that DCF didn't know he was undocumented; it's just that they screwed up."

Eva Patterson, Manuela's foster mom, rescued the teenager and her toddler son from homelessness
Eva Patterson, Manuela's foster mom, rescued the teenager and her toddler son from homelessness

Kyle was scheduled for release from the Joseph V. Conte facility this past February 16. Fifteen minutes before his mother arrived at the blue-gray, barracks-style penitentiary in Pompano Beach to take her son home, police officers informed him he couldn't leave. INS put a hold on Kyle's release because he is an illegal alien with a criminal record and therefore subject to deportation. INS transferred him to Krome. A deportation hearing has not been scheduled. But in all likelihood, according to attorney Alan Mishael, the young man will be sent to the Bahamas, his birthplace, if he can prove he was born there. But if not, then it's off to Haiti. "Do you know how much money the government spent on this kid, and then for the want of a fingerprint everything goes down the drain and he's vanished to another country?" says Mishael, Kyle's attorney. "I'm speechless. What this kid's gone through is a nightmare."

Broward DCF at first would not respond to inquiries, citing confidentiality of its juvenile cases. But when a New Times reporter suggested to DCF attorney Deborah Guller that Kyle's imprisonment could have been prevented had DCF done more, Guller said, "There's a point in time when individuals have to take responsibility for their own actions." DCF has not responded to any other questions.

For obvious reasons it is impossible to know how many undocumented minors live in South Florida. Twenty-nine currently are living in Boys Town, an INS-contracted facility in Miami. Since July 1999 DCF in Miami has referred fourteen children to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), which is contracted to help alien children. DCF must refer a minimum of 40 cases by June of this year, according to FIAC's pro bono attorney Christina Kleiser; Miami-Dade DCF is off the mark by 26 cases. In Broward the figures are hazier; because that county has made little effort to count, it has an uncharted pool of kids eligible for J-visas.

But UM professor and child-welfare attorney Bernard Perlmutter believes there are many. "I suspect there are scores of kids out there," he says. "Many of the ones who are under the legal custody of DCF aren't getting their fingerprints, photos, or medical exams in time to appear at their adjustment interviews with INS." Perlmutter knows first-hand. In the past he's even had to drive clients to physical exam appointments, because their DCF caseworkers hadn't arranged transportation for them. "As a result they don't get their green cards," he says. "It's DCF's responsibility to identify the undocumented kids who are in the system and to go through the necessary steps in adjusting their legal status."

In the past politics influenced how DCF handled cases of abuse pertaining to alien children. When Lawton Chiles took an a critical stance against funding illegal aliens during his tenure as governor of Florida, DCF did the same. In early 1994 Chiles sued the federal government for millions of dollars he claimed the state had spent on social services for illegal immigrants. Chiles argued that they were the responsibility of the federal government. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Department of Children and Families in Miami (then HRS)routinely denied foster care to abandoned children who entered the nation illegally. Twice welfare officials successfully argued in federal court that undocumented children had no legal right to state services.

But in late 1994, just as Kyle was beginning to settle into the Mel Blount Youth Home in Georgia, controversy over how Florida's welfare agency treated immigrant children in need of foster care sparked a counter lawsuit in Miami, and DCF came under fire. Attorneys Alan Mishael, Chris Zawisza, and Juan Gomez sued DCF on behalf of two Haitian girls. They argued that immigrant children were being deprived of services based on their residency status and accused the state of trying to shirk its responsibilities by pushing abused immigrant children off on to the federal government.

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