Victor Collinson, then 6 years old, was in a tough spot in 2009.
He was put into foster care after his mother was jailed for abusing him. Soon afterward, his father stopped visiting him. He was brought illegally into the U.S. by his mother and father, who later were deported to Mexico.
Luckily, his foster family, Mike and Robin Collinson fell in love with him and adopted him after a long legal fight.
What happens to young children in this country, legally or illegally, when a parent is deported can be overlooked in the debate about immigration reform.
Deportation can tear a loving family apart. Sometimes a child can be left in the care of other family members. Other times, it is up to the state to find a home, often relying on the kindness of strangers to take a child in.
The impact on the child depends on the individual circumstances and can be much more complicated if the child is not a legal citizen.
There are many more children than homes in Hall County for those taken from unsafe family situations and placed in foster care. The county has about 130 children in foster care, but fewer than 30 foster homes, although exact numbers vary.
Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff estimated the number of county foster kids who have had a parent deported at about a handful. The Georgia Department of Human Services didn’t provide an exact number when asked.
The Collinsons became foster parents in early 2009. Victor and two of his siblings came to live with them that March, Robin Collinson said.
“When he came to live with us, he couldn’t speak English, so we didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English,” she said. “That was fun and challenging. We taught each other words.”
Language isn’t the only issue for children in the country illegally. They also aren’t eligible for benefits such as Medicaid, which federal and state governments provide to most foster kids.
“To me this is the worst case scenario. The children are abused and neglected ...” Jolliff said. “So now they come into foster care. That child is not an American citizen if they weren’t born here. That child is not eligible for most health insurance. So we the community, we the state taxpayers, we DFCS, through their budget, are left with the responsibility to provide (for) this child, who is now a ward of the state, with appropriate medical, dental care.”
There’s no insurance to pay for an older child to go to a group home or for surgery for a medical condition, Jolliff said. The state agency has to pick up that cost, but then the issue of parental consent for the medical care arises.
“It becomes very problematic, and we’ve had a couple of children that have very special medical needs, and it’s just complicated,” he said.
Children, citizens or not, come before Jolliff for a variety of reasons, including traffic tickets, criminal charges, truancy from school or because of parental abuse or neglect. The minor must have a parent or legal guardian come with them to court. Jolliff can appoint a legal guardian, who can help a child enroll in school, among other things.
The court staff only knows about a parent’s deportation if it’s related to the court case, he said.
Any child entering foster care must meet the criteria of being a deprived child, Ravae Graham, deputy director of legislative affairs and communications for DHS, wrote in an email. Being without a legal guardian would meet that criteria. So if a parent is being deported and can’t make alternative arrangements for their child, then foster care would be appropriate, she wrote.
A kid can be reunited with his parents by returning to the parents’ home country.
Victor remained emotionally healthy in general despite some adjustment issues, Robin Collinson said. The boy had some trauma from being taken from his grandparents in Mexico by his parents, being brought to the U.S. and being removed from that family situation and placed into another. It’s unclear whether his life with his grandparents in Mexico was safe because Victor had some old scars on his body, Robin Collinson said.
Victor, now 10 years old, and his sister would go into the kitchen at night and take food and either eat it in their bedrooms or hide it under the mattress.
“I don’t know if (they did that) because they felt like they weren’t going to get fed by us or if they felt like ‘Wow, this is food we’re not used to having so let’s hoard it up.’ I don’t know what made him do that,” she said.
Some of his siblings were released back to the parents and some went to live with other family members.
The Collinsons wanted to adopt Victor, which involved getting him a green card. The process took 2« years, with frequent court hearings.
“We kind of pushed more than I think other foster parents do,” Robin Collinson said.
President Barack Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year, which was designed to stop the deportation of younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children if they met certain conditions, including entering the country before age 16, attending school, being younger than age 30 and having no criminal background.
However, for undocumented young kids like Victor, there is a legal process where a minor can get special immigrant status. Jolliff said a pathway to citizenship is available to some after they turn 18.
Sometimes parents are deported and parental rights are severed by the state, both with and without their consent. Jolliff said some parents send their children to the U.S. without them because they want the kids to have a better life.
Throughout the legal proceedings, Robin Collinson said she was scared Victor would be sent back to Mexico. At one point, a representative from the Mexican Consulate asked the court for permission to take him back there.
“He had been living with us for about a year and a half, maybe two years,” she said. “In our heart, he was ours. We didn’t want to see anything happen to him. It was real scary.”
He was adopted by the family in December 2011.
“He’s a healthy, happy, 10-year-old,” Robin Collinson said.