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Missouri adoption ruling illustrates how easily deportees can lose their kids

Photo by jrodmanjr/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The proponents of measures aimed at keeping the children of deportees with their families now have a sad development to point to in the case of Guatemalan immigrant Encarnacion Bail Romero, her 5-year-old son, and the Missouri couple that took the boy in while she languished in custody and eventually moved to adopt him.

A judge in Missouri ruled this week that the couple, Seth and Melinda Moser, may proceed with the adoption of Romero's son and that Romero has no parental rights because she "abandoned" him. It's the lower court's second such ruling; a similar ruling in 2008 was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which called the decision then to terminate Romero's parental rights a "travesty of justice" and kicked the case back to the lower court for a new trial.

The resolution this week is one of those worst-case scenarios that can befall immigrant families in which one or both parents faces deportation. Romero, who is undocumented, was picked up during a 2007 immigration sweep at the poultry plant where she worked. At the time, Bush administration officials were charging immigrants arrested during some of these these operations with additional violations like identify theft, for using falsified papers to obtain work. Romero was sentenced to two years in prison for identity theft, to be later deported.

At the time her son, whom she had named Carlos, was still a baby. According to reports, a family member of the single mother at first cared for the boy while she was detained; meanwhile, as others pitched in to help with child care, the boy was introduced the Mosers. They eventually moved to adopt him, changing his name to Jamison. Romero is now pending deportation and has said she wants to take her son with her; the Mosers, meanwhile, have argued all along that they are the only parents the boy knows. Romero may appeal.

The case is an example of how relatively easy it is for immigrants who land in deportation - particularly in detention or imprisoned, like Romero - to lose their parental rights. Last year, the social justice magazine ColorLines reported that more than 5,000 children were in foster care following the detention or deportation of their immigrant parents. In March, a Homeland Security report estimated that between 1998 and 2007, more than 100,000 parents of U.S.- born children were deported, and deportations have been on the rise since.

When parents are deported, some opt to take their children with them when they leave. Other children remain in the U.S. with relatives. But when the appropriate relatives can’t be located, or the parents are shuffled off quickly into the immigrant detention system, sometimes there’s nowhere for the kids to go. In these cases especially, it is surprisingly easy for these immigrants to lose their children. Detained immigrants have difficulty meeting the requirements established by child welfare agencies, like attending case meetings or court proceedings, and often fail to meet the strict timelines set. If they don’t meet the terms, they can lose their parental rights.

Two recent bills have been introduced with the intent of making it more difficult for these parents to lose their children, including the recently filed HR 6128, a federal House bill that among other things proposes amending federal law to make it easier for the relatives of children whose parents are in deportation to act as legal guardians, regardless of their own legal status.

A similar California bill that cleared a state senate committee in the spring would amend the state Family Code to make it more difficult for parents in deportation to lose custody of their children, with courts required to consider the circumstances if the parent has been detained.