ATLANTA — The separation of children from their immigrant parents along the border has drawn international attention this year, but similar separations also take place far away from the border.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that in Georgia when a parent is deported or detained, their children may be placed in foster care if there's no other relative to take care of them.
If that happens, lawyers and officials from other countries say parents may have to go through a difficult process to get their child back, a process that can be particularly difficult if the child is a U.S. citizen.
Tom Rawlings, interim director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services, said it's a significant issue and one he's already trying to address. Rawlings used to be an attorney in private practice and occasionally handled cases involving children for the Mexican consulate in Atlanta so he's already familiar with the issue.
"We need to remember that just because a parent is deported, that does not justify the termination of that parent's relationship with the child," Rawlings said. "Borders don't determine your parental ability."
If a parent is detained or deported, foster care isn't the automatic choice for their children. Bryan D. Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency lets the parent decide who should take custody of any children. Often it's another relative or parent living in the U.S.
But if the parent is solely responsible for the child, Cox says the agency takes that into consideration when making the call on whether to detain the person. If the parent is brought into custody and doesn't name a caregiver for the children, he said that's when state child welfare officials are contacted.
Bernadette Olmos, an Atlanta lawyer who has represented immigrant parents in family law cases, said some families can end up fighting the state over parental rights, a prospect that can be especially difficult given that they aren't able to return to the U.S. for hearings or other obligations.
The Division of Family and Children's Services doesn't keep count of foster care cases involving immigrant parents who are deported or detained. But the Mexican consulate in Atlanta says it has gotten involved in dozens of such cases in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Some take years to complete. The consulate has assumed temporary custody of children in 28 cases since 2015 and flown them to Mexico to be with their parents.
Lawyers and advocates say they also want to change the idea that living in the United States is more valuable than being raised by one's own parent.
Steve Teske, a longtime juvenile court judge in Clayton County, said he's heard questions by social workers about whether a U.S. citizen child in foster care should be turned over to a deported parent when there are questions about the conditions in the parent's home country. Teske said he doesn't usually agree with this line of thinking when the parents want their children back and can care for them and cited research showing the importance of the parent-child bond.
"We have to keep in mind that there is a growing amount of research that is showing us that the parent-child bond is so great that most other things — particularly like living in poor conditions — are overcome by that strong parent-child bonding," he said.