A policy proposal introduced twice in the Senate could have devastating consequences for migrant minors in Arizona who were abandoned, abused or neglected and arrived in the country alone to seek protections, advocates said.
The legislation would prevent lawyers of children from initiating a court process to protect minors who are not being adequately cared for by their parent. Currently, the Arizona Department of Child Safety and “any interested party” can file dependency petitions in court when they believe a parent is unfit or unable to care for a child. These petitions request a ruling finding the child to be a dependent of the court.
Senate Bill 1075, sponsored by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and a strike-everything amendment proposed by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, on his Senate Bill 1308 aim to change who can file a dependency petition in juvenile court to only DCS or a relative of the child. Relative is defined in the law as a “grandparent, great-grandparent, brother or sister of whole or half blood, aunt, uncle or first cousin.”
This leaves out lawyers for migrant minors and attorneys for youth in the behavioral health and juvenile justice systems who look out for the safety of children, said Beth Rosenberg, director of child welfare & juvenile justice for Children’s Action Alliance.
“When there is concern (about) the safety of the children, those attorneys need to have that option (to file dependency petitions) to safeguard the safety the children,” Rosenberg said.
DCS spokesman Darren DaRonco said the proposals are good policy.
“The Department believes the legislation is good policy and in the best interests of Arizona’s children and families because it helps to ensure that a proper investigation is completed prior to the filing of a dependency petition,” DaRonco said in a statement. “The Department also has the requirement to provide reasonable efforts to prevent removal.”
But for migrant children who are in federal custody, and who arrived in the country alone, the proposal would be devastating, said Laura Belous, an attorney with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project – the only group in Arizona that provides free legal representation to detained migrant children.
This group of migrant youth, known as unaccompanied minors, are in the custody of the federal government, but some rely on state courts to access medical care, school and other protections available to them in the federal immigration system. Without this access, they’d be potentially sent back to the danger they left in their home countries, Belous said.
“It would be absolutely devastating for our clients. It will foreclose (Special Immigrant Juvenile) status. For medical care and school enrollment, that would be off the table for immigrant kids in Arizona,” Belous said. “We would see a number of kids being returned to extremely difficult situations. I think that would be just a tragedy.”
The Special Immigrant Status is a federal immigration program that grants permanent residency (green cards) to children who have been neglected, abused or abandoned by a parent. To apply for these, the minors need a state court finding stating they are a dependent of the juvenile court because a parent abused, abandoned or neglected them and they can’t return to their home country.
“Most of our clients are youth from Central America who have not had many advantages in life, limited schooling, and they are learning English as they are here. The idea of having these kids advocate for themselves puts them at risk,” Belous said. “At the end of the day, it would make it much harder for our clients to claim safety under Arizona law.”
Belaus said the Florence Project files an estimated 150 dependency petitions each year in juvenile courts in Maricopa and Pima counties. Under the policy proposals, they would be unable to make such filings.
SB1075, introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, failed to be scheduled in a committee by this week’s deadline, and SB1308 was scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was held. Both bills are essentially dead, but the issue could resurface before the legislative session ends.
Narrowing the requirement to leave out attorneys and advocates makes children less safe in Arizona, said Gladis Molina, child advocate program director with the Young Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights and interests of immigrant children.
“Allowing an interested party to file a dependency petition broadens the ability of the public to protect kids, and bring attention to the system that might otherwise not be identified by family or the Department,” she said. Molina often serves as a guardian ad litem in cases involving migrant youth.
Chris Phillis, an attorney who represents youth in Maricopa County, has worked in juvenile courts for over two decades. She said sometimes attorneys for the child and DCS disagree on whether a dependency petition is needed.
“It happens often, (but) it’s not all the time,” Phillis said. “Especially with the older children, when they start to become teenagers, DCS is less inclined to get involved. ”
If attorneys, who make legal assessments on whether a minor is at risk and act in the best interest of the child, are cut-off from filing for dependency, Phillis said teens would be disproportionately impacted.
“I think there will be less cases that are filed, and I think you would see even fewer children 12 or older being involved in a dependency,” she said. “I think that age group is at a greater risk. We can’t abandon them, those are still children. We can’t just ignore them.”