Thursday, August 28, 2008

Juvenile court, child welfare system - or deportation?

Court rules S.F. teen illegal needs services
Van Derbeken, Jaxon. San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 26, 2008.

A San Francisco court set aside a drug-trafficking case Monday against a 14-year-old Honduran immigrant - a ruling that juvenile justice officials fear will undermine Mayor Gavin Newsom's new policy requiring that such offenders be held for possible deportation.

Juvenile Court Commissioner Abby Abinanti concluded that the youth, identified only as Francisco G. because of his age, should be treated within the social welfare system, not as a criminal offender. If federal authorities don't intervene, the ruling would almost certainly allow him to remain in this country.

Abinanti issued her ruling after a social services official and a city attorney's representative on an advisory panel reviewed the youth's history and concluded that he should be considered a victim and thus be entitled to receive social welfare services.

Prosecutors and a third member of the panel, a Juvenile Probation Department representative, objected, citing the youth's immigration status. In the end, Abinanti ordered that the youth be turned over immediately to social workers for possible placement in a group home, according to authorities who spoke on condition of anonymity because juvenile proceedings are closed to the public.

Abinanti, through a court spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Feds see ulterior motives
Federal officials assert that placing young felons in group homes amounts to a violation of U.S. law prohibiting the aiding and abetting of illegal immigrants. They suspect that declaring drug dealers to be innocent victims is an end run around the requirement that such immigrants be handed over for possible deportation.

Monday's ruling fueled such criticism.

"I am concerned that there are people who are still attempting to find strategems to avoid compliance with federal law," said Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, who faulted San Francisco's past practice of shielding juvenile offenders from deportation.

Advocates for youths in the juvenile courts maintain that many of the immigrant teenagers accused of drug dealing, rather than being hardened criminals, are victims of abuse, abandonment or human trafficking. They say the youths should be allowed to make a case for asylum rather than being turned over for deportation hearings.

The issue is playing out in court after articles in The Chronicle revealed that the city, which has touted itself as a sanctuary for immigrants, was paying for flights and group-home placements for illegal immigrant youths caught dealing drugs rather than turning them over for deportation.

Being deported could result in the youths being legally prevented from ever returning to the United States.

After the stories appeared, Newsom announced that he had switched course and ordered juvenile justice officials to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. A spokesman would not talk about the case heard Monday but emphasized the mayor's policy change.

"City officials have been directed by the mayor to refer all undocumented felons to immigration, regardless of age," spokesman Nathan Ballard said. He said any contrary effort would be "inconsistent with city policy."
Boy could still be deported

Juvenile probation authorities referred Francisco G. to federal officials for possible deportation after he was arrested last month, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have placed a hold on the boy.

However, federal agents typically consider youths who are victims of abuse or neglect to be a lower priority for deportation than those found to have committed felonies such as drug dealing.

Francisco G.'s status is unclear in the wake of Abinanti's ruling Monday. It is possible that federal authorities will exercise their immigration hold on him and take custody of the boy before he is turned over to social service officials in the city.

Attorneys for Francisco G. petitioned Abinanti to set aside his criminal case for six months to allow him to be put in foster care while he seeks asylum in the United States. They say he is abandoned, has no way of contacting his parents in Honduras and wants to "better himself and his situation through the foster care system."

Francisco G.'s case was one of several since Newsom's policy reversal in which the public defender's office has petitioned courts to set aside criminal charges and allow immigrant offenders to be put in unlocked foster care homes while on informal probation.

Drug offenders are typically not entitled to such treatment. Under state law, a judge can set aside drug cases only after finding that special circumstances exist to merit such action "in the interests of justice."
Dealing crack in Tenderloin

The Honduran youth was arrested July 17 in the Tenderloin on suspicion of dealing crack cocaine, a felony. Officers saw him spit out a rock of crack and then hand it to a dealer, who sold to undercover officers, police reports say.

The assistant chief of the Juvenile Probation Department, Allen Nance, told Newsom in a recent memo that the public defender's efforts on behalf of Francisco G. showed how some immigrant youth advocates were trying "to circumvent the intentions of the mayor as it relates to undocumented minors involved in illegal drug sales."

"If this minor returns to the community, I am very concerned that he will run from a nonsecure environment," such as a group home, Nance wrote. "Further, our office is not in a position to effectively provide supervision services to an undocumented person without the risk of violating federal law."

Public Defender Jeff Adachi declined to comment. Deputy Public Defender Lisa Katz argued that Francisco G. has no criminal history and came to the United States to avoid beatings at the hands of gang members in Honduras.

In urging that the drug-dealing case be set aside, Katz said the boy was "well-suited for informal probation."

She argued that allowing him to be released "would not place the public in danger" as he is "remorseful for his actions and has a desire to better himself and his situation through the foster care system. His ambitions are strong indications that the public will not suffer further transgressions of the law."
Mother left for Spain

The boy was abandoned in Honduras by his mother, who moved to Spain, and was repeatedly beaten and harassed by gang members who stole the money she sent back to him, Katz said.

Because he is abandoned, Katz said, "like any child within our jurisdiction without a parent or guardian, he deserves the opportunity to go into foster care."

Youths who are declared victims of abandonment in juvenile criminal proceedings are sent into the social welfare system and are removed from juvenile hall.

Russoniello said immigration authorities evaluate such cases to determine whether children are abandoned.

"When someone convinces ICE that the youth is truly dependent, they would be a low-priority for (deportation)," Russoniello said. "But that is going to be the exception, considering the police are catching these guys trafficking in drugs."

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