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Mar 2, 2019

A desperate bargain

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode looks at parents forced to make an impossible decision. Our first story, a partnership with Type Investigations, focuses on parents who lose custody of their children so the kids can access medical and psychological care. Our final story investigates a Trump administration practice that forces parents to risk deportation in order to claim their children from government shelters.

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Our Partner

Credits

Our investigation into child custody battles was produced in collaboration with Type Investigations with reporter Juliana Schatz Preston, edited by Alissa Figueroa, with fact checking from Sarah McClure. It was produced by Amy Walters and edited by Casey Miner.

Our story about how the Trump administration used kids to target family members for deportation was reported by Laura Morel, produced by Jenny Casas and edited by Brett Myers.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Voiceover: Today's Reveal episode is brought to you by Sun Basket. No matter your lifestyle, Sun Basket caters to your kind of healthy. With delicious meal plans like paleo, gluten free, Mediterranean, and vegan, plus quick and easy recipes, you can enjoy a dinner full of organic produce and clean ingredients in as little as 15 minutes. Go to sunbasket.com and enter promo code "REVEAL" today to get 50% off your first order. That's sunbasket.com, promo code "REVEAL" for 50% off your first box. Sunbasket.com, promo code "REVEAL."

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Every month, in a suburban home on a cul-de-sac in Connecticut, a group of parents get together.

 

Juliana S.-P.: It's the kind of place where you see SUVs parked in the driveway and inside there's a group of moms. Okay, there's also one dad. They offer you celery and cheese cubes from the grocery store.

 

Al Letson: That's Juliana Schatz Preston. She's a reporter with the non-profit newsroom Type Investigations.

 

Al Letson: Juliana, you've been going to these meetings. What's happening here? I'm guessing it's not a book club.

 

Juliana S.-P.: No, it's definitely not book club. It's a group of parents who all have something really hard in common. They all have kids who are high needs, kids with autism who don't speak, teenagers with bipolar disorders and other severe mood issues.

 

Al Letson: So this is kind of a support group?

 

Juliana S.-P.: Yes, but, more importantly, it's an advocacy group. These parents told me they all feel like the state of Connecticut has more or less abandoned them when it comes to getting treatment for their kids and they really needed the help.

 

Al Letson: What do you mean?

 

Juliana S.-P.: Well, for example, I talked to a woman named Marjorie who says her son threatened to kill her and her family.

 

Marjorie: Nobody believed me that he needed help. It was all me. I had two clinicians plus their supervisor saying, "Listen, it is not this family or this mother. This child has significant mental health issues." I had a guidance counselor look at me and she said, "Do you have guns in your house?" I said, "No." "Oh, well, then you have nothing to worry about."

 

Juliana S.-P.: Marjorie said the school basically told her they couldn't help, but obviously she was still terrified. This was less than two years after the Sandy Hook shooting, when you might remember a mentally ill young man named Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school. That's not far from the house where these meetings are taking place.

 

Marjorie: I only pray that when my son cracks, and he will, that it's only me that he kills and nobody else. I pray for that. It worries me, because I know that my son could do that. I know he could. He's getting better now with age, and I know everybody hates Adam Lanza and his mother, but I'm Adam Lanza's mother, too. This is not okay, how they treat us and how they don't take us seriously, because these systems have failed these children over and over and over again.

 

Al Letson: That's just ... That's heartbreaking. As a parent, I can't even imagine my kid having the ability to be someone like Adam Lanza. I can't wrap my head around that.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Listen, I feel the same way. I'm a parent, too. I can't even imagine what they're going through. That's why these parents are here, because they want their children to get better, but they feel like the school system, the insurance system, and the child welfare system have failed them so they lobby, they write legislation, and they try to force the state to provide better services for mentally ill kids because, since Sandy Hook, not a lot has changed.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Now, I do want to be clear that not all mentally ill kids are going to commit school shootings. Most of them won't, but these parents don't even want to take that chance. They know what their kids need, and that's 24 hour a day residential treatment, and it's almost impossible to get.

 

Al Letson: What are their options?

 

Juliana S.-P.: Well, parents in this situation don't have a lot of options. They feel like they've been backed into this corner where there's only one way to get their kids the treatment they need, and that's to go through child protective services. That means they might lose custody of their kids.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Let me tell you about one mom I've been speaking to. Her name is Stephanie [Prees-man] and her 14-year-old daughter Sammy is at the center of this custody battle. Stephanie isn't worried that Sammy will commit some violent crime, but she constantly worries about her mental health. I first talked to her back in August.

 

Juliana S.-P.: When I get to her house, Stephanie takes me to see Sammy's bedroom. It's sparse, a little messy. There's a television with a DVD player, an Elmo toy, and a mattress, but that's not what Stephanie wants to show me. Instead, she points out all of these other little signs of Sammy, like the deep scratches on the wooden closet frame.

 

Stephanie P.: This was one of her famous things. She would scratch right here. If you can believe that, all those are perfect nail lines. I just ... I can't get rid of them. I can't. I wouldn't be able to. That other one, I haven't repaired yet because I'm just not ready. Is that weird? Probably. I'm just not ready, because then it's like she's gone. You know? She's gone.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Sammy hasn't lived at home in five years. Esme and Zane, who are two and three, are playing in their sister's bedroom. They don't quite understand Sammy's absence. Their older brother Lance, who is 13, remembers a lot more.

 

Stephanie P.: He's my early riser because he's playing Fortnite all the time.

 

Lance: Mom, it's not Fortnite anymore.

 

Stephanie P.: Well, whatever he's playing now.

 

Juliana S.-P.: He misses his sister but he doesn't like to talk about it.

 

Stephanie P.: Sore subject because he gets made fun of at school. They call her a gorilla at school. They're close in age, they're in the same grade. A lot of people say, "No, you're just like you're sister," and stuff like that.

 

Juliana S.-P.: It all began when Sammy was a baby. She was a beautiful little girl and, in many ways, there were happy times early on, but certain things she did made Stephanie nervous.

 

Stephanie P.: I took her for her nine month appointment and I said, "She's not sitting up. Something's not right. She's staring at ceiling fans. Something's wrong."

 

Juliana S.-P.: When Sammy was a toddler, Stephanie got some news.

 

Stephanie P.: They called and said, "We're sorry, but your daughter has autism."

 

Juliana S.-P.: Sammy had autism.

 

Stephanie P.: "That's the final ... We've done everything." They said, "Good luck."

 

Juliana S.-P.: It took a little while for Stephanie to realize what that meant. She was on her own.

 

Juliana S.-P.: After Sammy's diagnosis, having a normal family life became difficult. Sammy was nonverbal and could get overwhelmed and start screaming but, at first, Stephanie could handle it. She and her son Lance taught Sammy some words. This is a recording they made when Sammy was eight years old. You can hear her point out a red bird on Lance's shirt?

 

Lance: What's this? What is that?

 

Sammy: Red.

 

Lance: Mommy, she gets it now.

 

Juliana S.-P.: As Sammy got older, it got harder to take care of her.

 

Stephanie P.: If you don't watch her 24/7, she eats things. She ate her own hair.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Still, Stephanie tried. Sammy started trying to escape their house so Stephanie installed alarm systems.

 

Stephanie P.: She broke the window.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie started hiding sharp objects. She could see things were getting worse and she was scared.

 

Stephanie P.: You're at the point where you're like, "Please help because she's going to hurt herself. She's going to hurt herself bad."

 

Juliana S.-P.: There were programs, supposedly, for kids like Sammy and Stephanie tried to get her into them.

 

Stephanie P.: Everybody talked about these wonderful things they had and I couldn't access them. I got turned way.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie says she sought help but program after program told her that Sammy was too high needs, that they couldn't handle her. It was like the more help Stephanie needed, the less she could get.

 

Stephanie P.: What I can do is take her to the hospital. I can do that no problem any day of the week.

 

Juliana S.-P.: And that's exactly what she did. Stephanie took Sammy to the emergency room five times in two years. Each time, Sammy would be released and Stephanie would go back to looking for treatment options. Stephanie knew what she was looking for, a residential treatment center where Sammy could live full time with 24 hour care. After one of her ER visits, Sammy's doctor recommended the same thing, but Stephanie says she couldn't find an open bed for Sammy. Even if she had found somewhere, it would have been really expensive. That type of treatment center costs more than $100,000 a year. Very few families can afford it on their own, and many private insurance providers won't cover residential treatment.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Instead, Stephanie would bring Sammy home again from the hospital and do her best, until the day Sammy hurt someone.

 

Stephanie P.: She attacked a teacher at school and the teacher got hurt. They told me I had to take her to the hospital. That's when it was kind of game over.

 

Juliana S.-P.: This was in 2014, when Sammy was nine years old. She bit her teacher and Stephanie took her back to the ER. Again, Stephanie asked for residential treatment or a safe place that Sammy could stay. Instead, a few days later, a doctor recommended a safety plan that included putting Sammy on anti-psychotic drugs.

 

Stephanie P.: I was not okay with somebody who only knew Samantha for three days to tell me to put her on clonidine and Abilify. Abilify. I'm not okay with that.

 

Juliana S.-P.: The doctor was recommending a heavy combination of anti-depressants and sedatives. Stephanie felt they would just treat the symptoms and not help with Sammy's underlying psychiatric needs. She looked at her nine-year-old daughter and these powerful drugs. She was too young, she thought. What Stephanie didn't realize was that refusing the treatment plan had serious consequences.

 

Juliana S.-P.: When Sammy was discharged from the hospital, Stephanie got a call from a social worker with the Department of Children and Families, or DCF. It's the state agency that mostly handles child abuse and neglect cases but it also deals with mental health.

 

Stephanie P.: She called me and she said, "Now, I hear you're having trouble." I said, "Yeah. I can't get the care I need." She said, "We're here to help you," and I said, "Well, anything you can do to help."

 

Juliana S.-P.: "Anything you can do to help." These words would come back to haunt Stephanie.

 

Al Letson: At this point, Stephanie was feeling really vulnerable. Like a lot of parents in her situation, she was willing to try almost anything to get help for her child.

 

Stephanie P.: Then, when somebody comes in and says, "I can get you everything you want," you're at the point where like, "Oh, my God."

 

Al Letson: When we come back, the consequences of accepting that help for Stephanie and for families around the country.

 

Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: The best way to get all of our stories without anything between is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and, sure, we'd like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text "NEWSLETTER" to 63735. Again, text the word "NEWSLETTER" to 63735. I'll see you in your inbox.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Stephanie Preesman had spent years trying to get intensive mental health care for her daughter Sammy. She wanted Sammy placed in a residential treatment center, a place where she could get care 24 hours a day, so when a social worker from Connecticut's Department for Children and Families, or DCF, said they could help, Stephanie said, "Okay." Reporter Juliana Schatz Preston of Type Investigations tells us what happened next.

 

Juliana S.-P.: After Sammy bit her teacher, she spent a few days in the hospital. Not long after she came home, the social worker called again. She asked Stephanie to come to the DCF office for what she called a removal meeting.

 

Stephanie P.: But it's not ... They said, "Don't be worried. We're not removing her. We're going to help you."

 

Juliana S.-P.: The full name for this is a considered removal meeting. It's when DCF is considering whether to take a child out of the home. At the meeting, parents get a chance to make their case. Stephanie says she thought her meeting was just a formality. She trusted her social worker, who said this was all just part of Sammy getting the right care, so she went to the meeting, answered some more questions, and even took a drug test.

 

Stephanie P.: Went in there, peed. They said, "Oh, you're negative." I said, "Thank you."

 

Juliana S.-P.: She thought everything was fine.

 

Juliana S.-P.: The next evening, though, the social worker showed up at her house unannounced.

 

Stephanie P.: It's called a surprise visit. I didn't mind. "Come on in, do you what you gotta do." It was late.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie told me the kids were asleep in their rooms but the social worker asked to see them anyway. Stephanie refused. It was a quick visit, but it was still distressing, someone showing up at her house and asking to peek in on her kids. Still, she thought this was all part of the process, that this would lead to Sammy getting into residential treatment.

 

Juliana S.-P.: In fact, after that unannounced visit, DCF did call. Stephanie says they'd told her they'd found a place for Sammy and to bring Sammy to their office, but, when Stephanie got there, something else happened.

 

Stephanie P.: They took her and they said, "Come and follow us. We'll show you the place she's living."

 

Juliana S.-P.: The social worker told her to put Sammy in her car and said Stephanie could follow them.

 

Stephanie P.: I followed her and she lost me on the highway.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie lost sight of the car.

 

Juliana S.-P.: What happened next isn't clear. Stephanie told us she had no idea where her daughter had been taken and that DCF wouldn't answer her questions. She was frantic. When DCF finally called, Stephanie was shocked by what they said.

 

Stephanie P.: I got tricked bad. I thought she was going to another home and all of these things.

 

Juliana S.-P.: A residential treatment home, like what she'd expected.

 

Stephanie P.: Then, she wasn't.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Where did she go instead?

 

Stephanie P.: Into a foster home.

 

Juliana S.-P.: DCF had placed Sammy in what's called a therapeutic foster home, a special foster home where she could get some of the intensive services she needed.

 

Juliana S.-P.: The agency's version of what happened that day is a little different than Stephanie's. Their report says that Stephanie chose not to meet them at the foster home because she decided it was too late in the day to visit. Stephanie says she had no idea Sammy was even going into foster care.

 

Juliana S.-P.: It turns out the removal meeting Stephanie had gone to, it wasn't just a formality like they'd told her. It was exactly what it sounded like. Removal meetings are one of the first steps toward taking children out of homes that are neglectful or abusive.

 

Juliana S.-P.: What happened to Stephanie is called a 96 hour hold. It's a way for the state to remove a child from their home without an order from a judge. After the DCF social worker took Sammy, she submitted a report that said Stephanie was neglecting her. Then, DCF went to a judge and presented that report. The judge decided to take Sammy away from Stephanie and place her in state custody, and that wasn't all. Stephanie says a DCF worker told her ...

 

Stephanie P.: She said, "Don't bother getting Lance from school. We took him," and I said, "You liar." She said, "The judge said, if I'm taking her, why am I not taking him, too?"

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie says the DCF report exaggerated or mischaracterized facts about her family's life. For example, the report repeatedly emphasizes that her husband had a drinking problem. Stephanie says he did have issues but that they were committed to working on them and ultimately got the problem under control. She herself doesn't drink, and the report doesn't mention any danger to the kids. The report also mentions that Lance has Asperger's Syndrome but Stephanie didn't have trouble managing that and wasn't asking the state for any help with him. All she wanted was help for Sammy, but instead she lost both of her kids.

 

Juliana S.-P.: A few years before the state took Stephanie's kids, attorney Lisa Vincent started a law practice mostly dedicated to exactly these kinds of cases because there are a lot of them. Lisa told me that most parents in Stephanie's situation only turn to DCF after exhausting all other alternatives. Like Stephanie, they are desperate to get their child into longterm residential care.

 

Lisa Vincent: To the best of my knowledge, there is no door to a longer term residential care for kids in Connecticut for parents without DCF being involved. If there's a door, I don't know where it is. I've never seen it.

 

Juliana S.-P.: And Lisa says the price of walking through that door is giving up custody of your child. That's not how it's supposed to work. The law gives parents a way to ask DCF for help without giving up custody. If the kids clearly need residential treatment, the state is supposed to help them get it, but remember, that treatment is really expensive, upwards of $100,000 a year. Parents, lawyers, and advocates I've talked to across the country say states look for ways to avoid that bill. A lot of times, officials will just argue that kids don't really need residential care, but if it's clear they do, like with Sammy, advocates say it's much cheaper for a state like Connecticut to put them in foster care because then they can use federal Medicaid funds to pay for any treatment the kids receive.

 

Lisa Vincent: The end result of that is children are losing their families and being separated from their families, and parents are losing their rights to make decisions for those kids.

 

Juliana S.-P.: It's really hard to find official data on the number of children who have intentionally been placed in foster care to receive mental health services. A recent University of Maryland study found that 2/3 of states don't even track how many kids this happens to. Beth [Stroll] is the author of that study. She is one of the only people in the country who has current data on how and why this happens. Her upcoming report is the first attempt at this kind of research in 15 years.

 

Beth S.: I think there are three important takeaways. One, it's still occurring in some states. Two, it's occurring less frequently in all states than had been reported previously. Three, that we now have some sense of what are effective strategies to address it.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Her data shows that this situation, where parents give up custody in order to get their kids mental healthcare, happens less than it used to, but it still happens in 44 states, even though 26 of those states have statutes or other policies to prevent it. One of those states is Connecticut. Attorney Lisa Vincent says she sees this all the time. Specifically, she sees the state designate certain neglect cases as quote, "uncared for due to specialized needs." She says that phrase is a red flag. It almost always means parents are giving up custody because they can't care for their kids. From 2011 to 2018, there were over 1,000 cases like this in Connecticut.

 

Lisa Vincent: The longterm costs of that are exorbitant. Exorbitant. No excuse for it. This could happen to any parent in America. If you think that it couldn't, you'd be living in a dream world.

 

Juliana S.-P.: The question I'm left with is why? Why would giving up custody of your kids just to get them mental healthcare even be an option?

 

Juliana S.-P.: I sat down with Christina Stephens, an administrator with Connecticut DCF. She told me that the system works well and that most parents who want what the state calls "voluntary services" can get them without giving up custody. I pushed back.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Unfortunately, the 10 different parents I've spoken to have presented a much different scenario. They attempt to apply for voluntary services and are denied, and then they discover, either with a social worker or a doctor at an ER, that they have the option to relinquish custody, after which they are surprised to learn that they will be charged with a category of neglect in court, which is the "uncared for due to specialized needs." Then, the child is in the custody of the state. How do you respond to that?

 

Christina S.: Well, we do have denials. We don't ... We obviously have a 95% acceptance rate. You have families that initially apply and sometimes withdraw and say, "I've decided I'm going to move in another direction," or, "The need is not what I thought it was," or they've got a different clinician. It may have been a difference of opinion where you have a provider who says, "I can deliver specifically what's recommended in the home, in the community," and you may have a family who says, "I'm not interested in that." These are complicated issues and they're incredibly hard to do because they are so complicated.

 

Juliana S.-P.: When Stephens says they have a 95% acceptance rate, she's talking almost exclusively about in-home voluntary services. Most of the parents I spoke to had those at some point but it wasn't enough. When they tried to get out of home, residential treatment through the state, they were denied. Stephens says the state discourages residential treatment because it isn't always effective, plus, as we know, it's really expensive.

 

Christina S.: If I'm going to invest in X, what should we expect to have as outcomes? I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. We want to be good fiscal stewards, all of us do, so it's important that you make sure what we're investing in actually yields the kinds of outcomes you had hoped for.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Still, Stephens told me that parents aren't ever forced to give up custody in order to get the care they need. She said that sometimes they're actually grateful to have the state take over because they don't want their kids at home but they don't want to be the ones to say it.

 

Christina S.: A couple of instances come to mind where a family has, in some cases, sought us out to say, "I know my relationship with my child and, if my child is ready to come home, I'm their parent, I'm going to say yes, even if everybody around me says, "Not ready. Not ready. More time is needed. Slow it down," I may ... I just can't." Heartbreaking to imagine yourself saying to your child, "You can't come home yet." Under an "uncared for," we essentially get to be the heavy on that. It's not voluntary because the family doesn't necessarily want to have all of the decision-making authority. It's clearly not abuse and neglect but there are some extenuating circumstances where the needs are such and the dynamics are such that the family actually has said to us, "I need a little bit of backup here."

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie would have appreciated backup from the state, but instead she was charged with neglect and her kids were taken away from her.

 

Stephanie P.: You've got the rug pulled under you and you feel like, "Wait, what did I do wrong? What did I do wrong?" That's all you keep thinking of, is, "What did I do wrong?"

 

Juliana S.-P.: A judge ruled that Stephanie couldn't care for Sammy but Sammy never went to a residential treatment. Instead, she went to a therapeutic foster home where the state paid for the foster family to get all kinds of in-home services, services that Stephanie never had access to. What's more, her younger son Lance, he was sent there, too, living with Sammy and the foster parents. DCF's report makes it clear that Lance was miserable in the foster home. He was stressed, angry, upset, and sometimes even refused to eat. Sammy was getting some therapy, but DCF reports also noted that she got upset after Stephanie's visits. To Stephanie, it seemed like the whole family was suffering.

 

Stephanie P.: You should be giving the money that's going to these foster homes to the parents to keep the kids because, seriously, if I had all that, she would be home.

 

Juliana S.-P.: After nine months, Lance returned home.

 

Stephanie P.: That was it, and Lance came home. There was no transitioning, there was no, "Come home for overnights," or whatever. It was he went home. Now, we have to transition a child who has been learning to live in another home back home.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Sammy is still living in a therapeutic foster home. Stephanie can visit her but DCF checks in on her parenting decisions until Sammy turns 18.

 

Stephanie P.: I'm just stuck in the system. I'm stuck in the system really bad right now.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Stephanie has managed to maintain some involvement in her daughter's care, but everything she does with Sammy has to be done with DCF permission. She lost the battle that started her down this path in the first place. Sammy is now on some of those anti-psychotic medications that Stephanie never wanted her to take.

 

Stephanie P.: We basically have medicated my child to be a zombie. She's not Samantha. She's not ... Now, she's probably easier to deal with. She's not her anymore.

 

Juliana S.-P.: In the end, Stephanie is left wondering where she went wrong, what she could have done better.

 

Stephanie P.: I wear shame. I do. I wear it all over me.

 

Juliana S.-P.: She thinks that people must judge her for losing her children, that she must have made mistakes.

 

Stephanie P.: You just know when people are looking at you going, "What did she do?" Okay, because this just isn't normal. DCF just doesn't come in and take your kids. It doesn't happen like that.

 

Juliana S.-P.: For Stephanie, Sammy, and Lance, and for lots of other families like theirs in Connecticut and 43 states around the country, it did happen like that, and it still does.

 

Stephanie P.: I was 30-some odd years old, so mind you, but I've lived my life the right way. You do what you're told, you get through, you don't break the law, you be a good person. Never drank, never got drunk in my life. Just tried to do everything by the book. Why wouldn't they help you? I'll tell you, I'll never open that door again ever. I just wish I could do it all over again.

 

Al Letson: That's Stephanie Preesman. She was talking to reporter Juliana Schatz Preston. Juliana, Stephanie sounds like someone who felt like she did everything she was supposed to, and yet everything went wrong for her.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Yeah. One of the really striking things about reporting this piece was how so many parents were trying everything they could think of and just getting nowhere.

 

Al Letson: One of the big problems you identified was funding, right? States can get more money to meet their legal obligations to these kids if the kids are in state care. Your story focuses on Connecticut, but how are other states dealing with this issue?

 

Juliana S.-P.: Well, I also looked at New Jersey, where they've come up with some solutions. I talked with a woman named Liz Manley who knows all about custody for care and fixing it. She's the former Assistant Commissioner for New Jersey's Children's System of Care. She told me that watching child after child stripped from their families took its toll on her.

 

Liz Manley: You could see the devastation in a parent's face. First, they felt like a failure because their child was already hospitalized on an in-patient unit, and then, on top of that, I had to sit with them and explain to them why they couldn't afford to send their child to the right treatment program. Every time that paper was signed, I felt like things needed to change.

 

Juliana S.-P.: After years of hearing parent complaints, Liz was part of a team that decided that the solution would be to remove Child Protective Services from the equation and set up a new system just for kids with mental health needs.

 

Al Letson: Custody would no longer factor into care. Instead, there would be separate systems.

 

Juliana S.-P.: Right. They closed the old funding loophole where kids could only access care if they were in the custody of the state. Doing this was really challenging, according to Liz Manley. It was a huge organizational shift. They started in a few communities and slowly expanded the program state-wide. Along the way, they faced enormous backlash from people within New Jersey's Department of Children and Families.

 

Liz Manley: There were individuals who thought that building a separate child behavioral health system would harm the child welfare system. They weren't quiet about it. They wrote articles to the newspaper, they did letters to the editor.

 

Juliana S.-P.: In the end, it almost took 20 years to change New Jersey's system. Legislation and mandates didn't do much. Liz says they had to change the entire culture first, and that it was imperative to have the support of New Jersey's governors, but Liz says that shouldn't discourage other states from trying.

 

Liz Manley: Yes, it is absolutely possible to do it. I think the way that we convince people to do it is it costs less in the long run for us to provide the right care at the right time for the right duration than it does to provide the wrong care through the wrong door.

 

Al Letson: Did it work?

 

Juliana S.-P.: Liz says it did. The structures have changed. Children across the state have access to treatment and, as far as she knows, no families have had to give up custody to pay for that treatment, but, and this is a but, technically there's still a policy on the books that allows New Jersey's DCF to take custody of a child to get them into residential treatment. The agency doesn't track how often this policy is applied, so while there's no evidence that this is still happening, we can't know for sure.

 

Al Letson: Juliana, thanks so much.

 

Juliana S.-P.: You're welcome, Al.

 

Al Letson: Juliana Schatz Preston is an Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations, who we collaborated with on this piece. The story was produced by Amy Walters.

 

Al Letson: Up next, we'll look at another group of children, kids who have crossed the US border alone.

 

Justin M.: Here's children being asked all these questions about their family, their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents in the United States, and all that information can be used against those people.

 

Al Letson: How the Trump administration used kids as bait to go after their parents. That's coming up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Earlier this year, Reveal's Laura Morel visited a neighborhood in northern Philadelphia. Out on the street, a wood chipper churns through freshly cut branches. Laura stands nearby in an empty lot between two brick buildings. She's here to meet a man named Wilson.

 

Speaker 12: Wilson?

 

Laura Morel: Uh-huh.

 

Speaker 12: Right up there.

 

Laura Morel: Oh, he's up there?

 

Speaker 12: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: He's harnessed to a trunk of a tree 20 feet up. Bit by bit, he slices off big sections of tree trunk, sending them thudding to the ground. Wilson is in his early 40s. We're not using his full name because he's concerned for his safety. We'll tell you more about that in a little bit. He's been climbing and cutting trees for the last 13 years. Once on the ground, he reaches out a gloved hand to Laura, who asks, "How's he doing?"

 

Laura Morel: Como estas?

 

Wilson: Muy bien. [Spanish 00:33:56].

 

Al Letson: "Freezing but good," Wilson tells her. It's 30 degrees out, not the kind of weather Wilson grew up with back in Guatemala. Wilson is the only one on his crew trained to climb trees. On his harness, he has metal hooks, rope, and a chainsaw. Laura asks how much it all weighs.

 

Laura Morel: [Spanish 00:34:19].

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:34:20].

 

Al Letson: Around 50 pounds, he says, and then jokes that he's a little heavy himself.

 

Al Letson: Laura is here to learn about something that happened to Wilson a little over two years ago. Wilson was trimming trees on a day like this when he got a phone call that would change his life, dragging him into a system he successfully avoided for nearly two decades. Here's Laura.

 

Laura Morel: There are two phone calls in this story. Wilson got the first one in 2016. This call should have been great news. The voice on the other end of the line asked Wilson two questions. One, did he have a daughter named [Yency 00:35:07], because a girl by that name had just crossed the border into the US? Two, would he be willing to sponsor her, in essence house her and care for her while she went through the immigration process? His answer?

 

Wilson: Si.

 

Laura Morel: An immediate yes to both questions.

 

Laura Morel: The person on the phone was from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, also known as ORR. It's a federal agency with a pretty self-explanatory name, resettling refugees, including unaccompanied minors, kids like Yency, who cross the border alone. ORR runs shelters like the one Yency was being held at in Texas, and the agency also finds sponsors, parents, or family members who can give these kids a home while they go to immigration court. That's what that first phone call was all about.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:36:02].

 

Laura Morel: Wilson says the only thing on his mind was helping his 17-year-old daughter. He rushed to put together the sponsorship paperwork to bring her home. It was going to be the first time he'd see Yency in 15 years. When Yency was a baby, Wilson and Yency's mom were living together in Guatemala. Wilson had trained for years to become a skilled mechanic and had just opened his own business, but that business soon caused trouble for Wilson.

 

Justin M.: He left because he had to.

 

Laura Morel: This is Wilson's lawyer, Justin [Mix-en 00:36:45]. He says a cartel targeted Wilson because of his technical skills. They wanted him to work for them.

 

Justin M.: He had just started a new business, and then he was told either this business is part of our drug trafficking operation or we kill you. Then, they started following him and ... They were going to kill him, he knew that. That's why he left.

 

Laura Morel: Wilson fled to the US, leaving behind his wife and baby daughter. He says back then, he didn't know about US immigration law, didn't know he could apply for asylum. A couple of years after arriving in the US, Wilson and his wife split up, and Yency moved in with his sister. Wilson and Yency stayed in touch over phone calls and text messages. While Yency grew up in Guatemala, Wilson remarried, learned a new trade, and built a life in Philadelphia. Now, he was getting a call that could bring his daughter back into his life.

 

Laura Morel: Even though Wilson has never had legal status in the US, he wasn't worried about sponsoring Yency and sending his personal information to the government. He says he knew ORR was separate from ICE and that their job is to help kids like Yency. About 20 years ago, Congress directed the agency to find homes for migrant children and to act in the child's best interest. It does not enforce immigration laws.

 

Laura Morel: ORR did take care of Yency for weeks while Wilson put all the paperwork together. Yency remembers during that time she looked forward to Mondays. That's when she got a weekly 10 minute phone call with her dad.

 

Speaker 16: [Spanish 00:38:32].

 

Laura Morel: She says the minutes always seemed to fly by.

 

Speaker 16: [Spanish 00:38:38].

 

Laura Morel: Yency tells me, "Imagine. I was there for so long, feeling so lonely, and he would tell me to be patient, that everything would work out, and it did, for a while anyway."

 

Laura Morel: After three months of back and forth, ORR approved Wilson to sponsor Yency. He was asked to pick her up at the Philadelphia airport, to meet her at the gate. Going through the TSA checkpoint, Wilson remembers feeling nervous for the first time, nervous because he was here without legal status. He felt vulnerable around so much security, but that fear quickly melted the moment he saw his daughter.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:39:25].

 

Laura Morel: Wilson says he was surprised when he first saw Yency. She was a teenager, a young lady now, not the baby he had last seen in Guatemala.

 

Speaker 16: [Spanish 00:39:44].

 

Laura Morel: Yency says she'd only known her father through photographs and seeing him for the first time was indescribable, that being with him made her feel safe. Wilson and Yency folded themselves into a new life together. Yency started going to high school, learning English, and grew close to her younger siblings. Then, about a year later, Wilson gets that second call while he's out on the job.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:40:21].

 

Laura Morel: It was his wife. There were immigration agents at their house. Wilson's wife put one of them on the phone. The agents assured Wilson they just needed him to sign some important papers about Yency, so Wilson rushed home. Before he could reach the front door, the agents surrounded him.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:40:51].

 

Laura Morel: Wilson says they handcuffed him outside his house while his children were watching. He says the agents told him he was going to be deported and let him say goodbye to his family.

 

Laura Morel: After 20 years of living in the US, Wilson says he's been really careful to avoid trouble. He has no criminal record and he tells me he has never called the police, even when he's needed help, all because he was trying to keep a low profile. Now, just a year after Yency crossed the border, after he answered ORR's call to sponsor her, he got arrested.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:41:39].

 

Laura Morel: Shocked, scared, Wilson says he didn't know what to say or think. After he was arrested, he was taken to an ICE holding cell, where he says there were other undocumented parents just like him, parents who had also sponsored their children and were now facing deportation. If he gets sent back to Guatemala, Wilson tells me the cartel will come after him again.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:42:13].

 

Laura Morel: "They use the kids," he says, "to get to parents like me."

 

Justin M.: Here's children being asked all these questions about their family.

 

Laura Morel: Justin Mixen again, Wilson's lawyer.

 

Justin M.: Their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents in the United States. All that information can be used against those people. The kids don't understand because the kids think, "Oh, there's this really nice bilingual social worker who is really trying to help me," and they probably are but that information is being collected.

 

Laura Morel: When Wilson was arrested in 2017, it was the first time our immigration reporters at Reveal had ever heard of sponsors being targeted like this. Since then, I've found out that ICE was conducting a special operation during that time, one with a very long, official-sounding name, the Human Smuggling Disruption Initiative. The goal was all about cracking down on networks that smuggle people across the border. ICE declined to provide the names of sponsors that were arrested but confirms that agents were working in Philadelphia in August 2017, the same month Wilson was detained. The operation lasted three months and targeted sponsors like Wilson. ICE accused them of smuggling, paying someone to bring kids into the US. More than 400 people were arrested.

 

Laura Morel: Wilson insists that, before ORR called him, he had no idea Yency was coming, much less paid anyone to bring her across the border. I've spoken to several immigration lawyers representing sponsors like Wilson. They told me their clients had nothing to do with smuggling.

 

Laura Morel: If this operation was really about smuggling, how successful was it? I teamed up with another reporter at Reveal, Patrick Michels, to try to find out how many sponsors were actually caught hiring smugglers. Together, we sifted through hundreds of court records.

 

Patrick Michels: Southern district of Texas, 340 cases.

 

Laura Morel: Middle district of Tennessee, one case.

 

Patrick Michels: Western district of Tennessee, zero cases.

 

Laura Morel: Southern district of California, 511 cases.

 

Patrick Michels: Western district of Virginia, zero cases.

 

Laura Morel: Over the course of a few weeks, Patrick and I searched a federal court database, digging through smuggling cases in every US court district, 94 in total. We were looking for cases prosecuted in the seven months during and after this initiative.

 

Laura Morel: Western district of Kentucky, zero cases.

 

Patrick Michels: Central district of California, 10 cases. [crosstalk 00:44:51].

 

Laura Morel: [crosstalk 00:44:51].

 

Laura Morel: Western district of Kentucky, zero cases.

 

Patrick Michels: Zero cases.

 

Laura Morel: We found only three prosecutions for smuggling. That's three people charged with bringing kids across the border, three out of more than 400 who were arrested. Those numbers suggest that ICE's operation wasn't about catching smugglers, that, in practice anyway, it was about catching people like Wilson by using their kids as bait.

 

Laura Morel: We reached out to ICE about this but the agency declined to talk to us. A spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR, wouldn't respond to our questions about the initiative, but in a statement they said their goal is to create a safe and healthy environment for unaccompanied minors.

 

Laura Morel: This special operation ended in 2017 but it paved the way for a more permanent policy.

 

Speaker 18: With that, I will turn it over to, I believe, Devin from DOJ.

 

Speaker 19: We're going to let Steve go first, from HHS.

 

Laura Morel: In a briefing to journalists from May of last year, officials from the Trump administration discussed immigration policy, including a brand new memorandum of agreement.

 

Steven Wagner: I'll just say a quick work about the memorandum of agreement that was concluded between the Department of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. We think this is [crosstalk 00:46:20].

 

Laura Morel: That's Steven Wagner, an assistant secretary at HHS. Under this new agreement, ORR started sharing information about sponsors with ICE.

 

Steven Wagner: The other thing is we're going to more thoroughly vet sponsors. I think we do an excellent job now but, with DHS' cooperation, we will conduct a fingerprint-based background check on every sponsor to further [crosstalk 00:46:44].

 

Laura Morel: By the end of last year, ICE arrested nearly 200 people. Many were sponsors like Wilson. His lawyer, Justin, says, now that sponsors are being targeted, they're reluctant to cooperate with ORR, and that has dire consequences for kids being held inside the shelter system.

 

Justin M.: If you mess with that system, if you threaten the parents or the family members that, by helping a child, you yourself are going to be at risk, then of course what happens? Then the shelter population explodes, which is what we've seen in the last year and a half.

 

Laura Morel: There were nearly 15,000 kids in ORR custody by the end of last year, an all time record. Nearly all were unaccompanied minors.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:47:30].

 

Laura Morel: Wilson says immigration officials don't think about the harm they cause families. He doesn't understand why they would release his daughter to him and arrest him a year later, knowing that she relies on him for food, shelter, transportation, everything.

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:47:48].

 

Laura Morel: "What happens to the kids?" Wilson asks. "What about the family?" He says they're left in a bad situation. Who is going to pay the bill, the rent? Who will take the kids to school?

 

Laura Morel: I ask him what he would have done if he'd known helping his daughter would put him at risk for deportation. He tells me he would have tried to find a relative with legal status to sponsor her but, if that didn't work ...

 

Wilson: [Spanish 00:48:22].

 

Laura Morel: As a father, Wilson says he'd do the same thing all over again. Leaving Yency at a shelter in Texas, leaving her there alone, abandoned, it wasn't an option. He says, if faced with the same choice again, he'd take the risk no matter what.

 

Al Letson: Wilson is challenging his deportation. He's leaving at home with his family in Philadelphia and continuing to work as a tree trimmer. In August, he'll appear before an immigration judge to fight his case in court.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Laura Morel for that story. It was produced by Jenny [Coss-is] with reporting help from Patrick Michels.

 

Al Letson: We have a surprising update to this story. When Congress passed its new spending bill a little over two weeks ago, lawmakers did more than just avoid another government shutdown. Inside the 1,100 page document, there's a provision pushed forward by Democrats, one that temporarily blocks any more sponsors from being deported because of information shared between ORR and ICE. The spending bill remains in effect through the rest of the fiscal year. After that, though, ORR and ICE could start sharing information and deporting sponsors all over again.

 

Al Letson: Amy Walters produced this week's show along with Jenny Cossis. Casey Minor and Brett Meyers edited the show. Thanks to Type Investigations for partnering with us on our story about child custody battles in Connecticut, including editor Alyssa Figueroa and Sarah McClure, who fact-checked our story. Thanks also to Marilyn Pittman.

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help from Katherine [Ray-mond-o] and Caitlyn Benz. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Our senior supervising editor is Taki Telonidis. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan and our theme music is by [Com-a-rod-o 00:50:44]. Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 21: From PRX.