I don’t know about you, but some days it seems like family detention is a battle being fought on multiple fronts – the lawyerly equivalent of air, land, and sea. We have hundreds of pro bono attorneys and volunteers fighting nonstop to help families in the three facilities and helping families once they are released. We have staff in DC fighting to lift up stories with the legislators and pushing back hard at the administration every time a new horrendous policy raises its ugly head. Partners and supporters in this fight hold protests and vigils and are fighting misinformation pushed out by the federal government by sharing their knowledge with their communities through faith and service organizations. Many different battles are taking place through litigation. We are fighting on every single front with every tool we can use.
I wanted to share a victory that came two days ago in a Texas courtroom. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) was denied the right to license the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX, as a childcare facility. The Travis County judge, Karin Crump, heard Grassroots Leadership’s allegations against the facility, she heard the testimony from medical professionals like Dr. Luis Zayas, and she heard the voices of detained mothers that the CARA Project partners ensured were lifted up in the case. She did not like what she heard. The licensing was halted because the exceptions that the DFPS had pushed through, including allowing children to sleep in rooms with adult strangers, would allow for “situations for children that are dangerous.” It is wrong to endanger children and thankfully Judge Crump recognized that reality.
When I was in the Dilley facility last month, I took a declaration from a mother who received a subpoena to testify in the licensing hearing. The mother in question wanted to describe the incident when her 5-year-old child suffered a seizure in detention. A guard helped her when the seizure began by rubbing the boy’s chest and holding him on his knee. After the medical team arrived and checked the child, they informed the mother there was nothing wrong. However, throughout the following several days at random times, her young child would freeze and stare aimlessly at the walls. He was unable to respond to instructions. After a few minutes of unresponsiveness, tears would begin falling from his eyes and he would regain movement and alertness. I am lawyer, not a doctor, but what she described to me was her son having multiple seizures. Despite her repeated requests to have her child re-examined, the medical staff insisted nothing was wrong with the child. The mother shared with me that the guard who helped her child was surprised when he heard her child was not being treated, saying, “What? Even after all that I did, they say nothing is wrong with him?”
This brave mother wanted to tell her story to the judge hearing the licensing case. However, the night before her scheduled testimony, a guard called her and informed her she could attend the hearing in the morning, but she would have to leave her child behind. The mother strongly felt they did this to stop her testimony. She felt unable to leave her sick child alone. She was not the only one, another mother was also given the choice of testifying or leaving their sick child behind. Without those testimonies, the true and full story is not being told of what the mothers are going through trying to keep their children safe and healthy at the Dilley facility.
Despite the temporary good news, the case isn’t won yet. Licensing battles continue to wage for the other two family detention centers, in Karnes City, TX, and Berks County, PA, and arguments in the Dilley case will be heard in September, with the state agency on one side and stakeholders fighting for the mothers and children on the other. The government will keep pushing to get this license as another way they try to get around the Flores settlement agreement, designed to protect children from the deplorable conditions in these detention facilities.
While, unfortunately, this victory does not close the Dilley facility, it did again bring to light the harm caused to children incarcerated there. The government’s attempt to paint everything as all rosy and humane has failed yet again. The licensing was enjoined; we’ll gather and prepare our troops for the next battle, and we’ll keep fighting until the scourge of family detention is ended once and for all. We must shine a bright light into the darkness within the walls of this family prison.
Written by Victor Nieblas Pradis, AILA President and CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project Volunteer