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The American Civil Liberties Union advised a federal judge yesterday that the government has continued to take children away from migrant families, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. That's despite the judge's court order last year requiring all children separated from their parents be reunified, and mandating that the only reason the government can separate kids is if there's clear evidence the parent is a danger to the child. Instead, according to the government's own records, parents have had their kids removed because parents had committed minor traffic offenses; they also faced long-past accusations of crimes, spurious accusations of "unfit" parenting, and border agents who simply didn't believe parents' documents showing the kids were really their own. The ACLU is asking US District Judge Dana Sabraw to order an immediate halt to separations for trivial reasons, and to define clear guidelines to limit new separations going forward.

The ACLU filing is long and horrific, detailing the often ridiculous reasons the government has given for taking kids from their parents. It shows that a shocking number of the kids affected are very young -- half are younger than 10 years of age, and 20 percent are under five years old.

Some examples: The government took kids away from parents for very minor offenses like these:


• One parent was separated due to "Malicious destruction of property value $5," for which the father received a six-day jail sentence with six months of probation.

• One parent was separated due to "theft by shoplifting" and "driving without a license."

• One parent was separated due to a 2009 conviction for "resisting or obstructing an officer," for which he got "17 Days Time Served."

• One parent was separated due to a charge of "Obstruct Administration of Law Misdemeanor."

A lot of the separations were for "stale" criminal allegations -- many charges were over a decade old. The government's spreadsheets considered parents "criminals" without specifying whether they'd been convicted, or merely arrested and then not charged, and often didn't distinguish between felony and misdemeanor offenses (or accusations).

Some of the separations, supposedly to protect kids from "communicable diseases," are downright bizarre. One father had his three young daughters taken away because he was HIV positive. The ACLU notes government officials never "explained why they believe an HIV diagnosis rendered the father dangerous to his own children." And then there's this madness involving a child held in a baby jail by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR):

In another example, a mother broke her leg at the border and was briefly hospitalized for emergency surgery. […] While she was in surgery, her five-year-old child was separated from her and taken to an ORR facility in New York. ORR refused to release the child to her mother even after the mother's discharge from the hospital into the community. The child's lawyers prepared a motion for the child's release and notified Plaintiffs, which in turn informed Defendants of the imminent filing, prompting release of the child after a 79-day separation. [emphasis added; in this and other excerpts, we've removed the internal document citations -- Dok]

And then there are the utterly batshit accusations of "unfit" parenting. A father, identified as "E.R.R.," brought his one-year-old's cough and fever to the attention of guards at a Border Patrol detention center. Good for them, they took the baby to the hospital -- twice. But after she was released to the dad, he noticed she wet her diaper while sleeping in his arms. He decided to let her sleep instead of waking her up to change her.

The guard checked J.'s wet diaper and told E.R.R., "You are a bad father." The guard also asked him, "Why did you bring your daughter here?"

Bam, he's an unfit parent and his daughter was taken away; the separation order claimed he was "detached and unsympathetic for the condition of his own child," and accused him of "not know[ing] when and how to change a diaper or basic hygiene." E.R.R. wasn't told where she was taken, and she was only returned after three and a half months. To make matters worse, in one of the hearings during the attempt to get his daughter back, an attorney for ICE suddenly raised a completely new accusation, that E.R.R. wasn't really the baby's father -- the first time any such allegation arose.

And how about the parents with supposed "gang affiliations"? Look at this shit:

Ms. A. was separated from her two children based on her alleged gang affiliation. In March 2008, she was detained for three days by authorities when she ate at a restaurant frequented by gang members, but released with no charges. She subsequently became a police officer and was targeted by gang members. Ms. A.'s counsel provided DOJ with a document from the Salvadoran government showing Ms. A had no criminal record, and she was released and reunified with her son, but only after two months of separation.

Ms. E. was separated from her child, apparently because she was once held for a few days after she exited a store while a group of gang members were being arrested nearby. Ms. E. later passed her credible fear interview, and was released from detention and reunified with her son. Defendants never explained their change in position [...]

One three-year-old girl was separated from her mother due to her alleged gang ties and criminal record. The child's advocate determined that this was incorrect—the mother fled El Salvador to escape abuse by a gang member. The mother's son was forced to watch his mother be raped and abused, and while she was in the hospital, a gang member held her son and threatened to kill him if she reported her abuse.

Yep, you were affiliated with a gang because a gang member raped you in front of your child. In another case, a father had his 9- and 11-year-old kids taken away for six months because he was supposedly an MS-13 member with a long list of offenses in Honduras. The man had never been to Honduras, and eventually the government figured out he had a similar name and the same birthdate as a whole different person who was a gang member. In El Salvador.

The full report offers one detailed case of fuckery after another, with the government finding any excuse at all to take kids away. Jesus Christ, it's a depressing, necessary read.

Yes, the ACLU acknowledges, unfit parents and criminal parents are something to worry about. But one of the expert witnesses estimates that only about "two or three percent" of the supposedly criminal cases would warrant separation "in any state child welfare system."

Balanced against the government's pretended concern for the children's welfare, there's the lasting, devastating harm to children we're allegedly "protecting" by taking them from parents, as Harvard public health prof and child development expert Dr. Jack Shonkoff writes in a declaration appended to the report:

[B]eyond the distress we see on the outside, separating a child—particularly a young child—from her parents triggers a massive biological stress response inside the child. This response remains activated until the parent returns and provides comfort. Continuing separation removes the most important resource a child can possibly have to prevent long-term damage—a responsive adult who is totally devoted to the child's well-being.

From a scientific and medical perspective, both the initial separation and the lack of rapid reunification are indefensible. Forcibly separating children from their parents is like setting a house on fire. Prolonging that separation is like preventing the first.

Ah, but it's no big, the government's defenders will argue. We may be causing lifelong trauma, but at least we're feeding the kids. What part of "illegal" don't babies understand?

[WaPo / ACLU Memorandum in support of preliminary injunction]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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