Strengthening a Family Stretched Across the Border

One day in January 2020, Jesús*, a single father, was arrested on charges of shoplifting. Authorities discovered that he was undocumented, and he was put into a detention center by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His two sons, Cesar* and Enrique*, 9 and 11, were placed in the foster care system, not knowing if they’d ever see their father again.

Dwight Carter, a volunteer with CASA of Denton County, was sworn in and appointed to the boys’ case in the span of just a couple of days. It was a good thing that he got on the case so quickly, explained volunteer supervisor Ed Coffey. It meant Carter was able to meet the two boys in person before social distancing started as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We actually had a little bit of time before quarantine started, and put the case in CFE [Collaborative Family Engagement] right away,” said Coffey, referring to the family finding and engagement partnership between CASA and the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). “We didn’t think the dad was going to be able to get the kids back—we thought he was going to be on ICE hold indefinitely.”

Carter took the challenging case in stride. He met the boys in their foster home where they were living with two other children and their foster mother. The boys were doing well, considering the jarring circumstances.

But then, the news came that Jesús was deported to Mexico. CASA got into contact with him with the help of his attorney. Carter, the boys’ caseworkers and others on the Collaborative Family Engagement (CFE) team worked with a Spanish interpreter to communicate with him and get a better idea of family’s story.

They found out that the family had been living in Mexico, but early on, the boys’ mother had signed her parental rights over to Jesús and been out of the picture. Jesús, Cesar and Enrique immigrated to the United States and lived with family friends in California for a while, then migrated down to Denton, Texas. After he was deported back to Mexico, Jesús lived with his ex-wife’s aunt and uncle—the boys’ great aunt and great uncle.

“He [Jesús] kept saying that he wanted the boys to come down and live with him,” Carter said. “Of course my first thing was, ‘Okay, now how am I going to do a home visit?’”

He quickly realized the answer: Zoom. One good thing that’s come from the pandemic, Carter said, is that so many people, regardless of age, proficiency or location, are becoming better versed in videoconferencing and other virtual forms of contact. In fact, since the coronavirus hit, Carter, a self-proclaimed “old guy that enjoys helping kids!”, had been using Zoom to visit with Cesar and Enrique weekly, which he reported worked surprisingly well.

The CFE team decided Zoom would suffice for the home study, especially given the circumstances —but as a first step, they scheduled a virtual visit between Jesús, Cesar and Enrique.

“We got Jesús hooked up on Zoom, and we got him to visit with the boys,” Carter said. “They were able to communicate, and I was observing, CPS was observing, CASA was observing.”

The visit went well, so they started doing them weekly. Jesús made sure the Cesar and Enrique understood he still had high expectations for them even though they were separated, emphasizing that they needed to keep up with their grades and be respectful of their foster mother. With each virtual visit, it became more and more clear that Jesús was an invested and dedicated father and that the boys had a positive relationship with him.

Eventually, it came time for the virtual home study. The team got a personal Zoom meeting with Jesús and a Spanish interpreter, and permission from him to record the meeting. He took them around the home and explained what they were looking at.

The house had five bedrooms, and looked clean, safe and manageable. Jesús demonstrated that everything was functional, including electricity and running water. He then took them on a virtual tour of the neighborhood, including what would be the boys’ school if they were to live there. He also explained that he has a steady job working on the local air force base.

They then interviewed the boys’ great aunt and uncle, who owned the house, to gauge their participation and support. They committed to help out with watching the boys when their father was away, and assured that their grown daughter would be able to contribute as well. The family was also involved in the community, sewing masks to hand out to their neighbors for protection from COVID-19.

This brings us to where the case is today. Though no official decisions have been made and Cesar and Enrique are still in foster care, the CFE team is hopeful that they will be able to successfully reunify with their family in Mexico.

All signs point to bringing the boys home with their father as the best option, Coffey said.

“In this case, we have Dad fighting to get his kids back. They would be much better off with Jesús, growing up with their family culture as opposed to growing up in foster care,” Coffey said. “This is a family falling on hard times and needing support.”

While the primary plan is reunification, Carter, Coffey and the rest of the CFE team are also making sure to engage family friends in California as a backup plan. Whatever happens, they’re on track to get the boys out of foster care and into a permanent home where they can continue to build their meaningful relationship with their father.

*All names have been changed for confidentiality.