Advocates Say Tenn. Child Services Fails To Help Immigrants

By Micah Danney | July 25, 2023, 5:10 PM EDT ·

Several undocumented children and their advocates have accused the Tennessee Department of Children's Services of failing to help them pursue legal status, saying the agency allows vulnerable children in its care to age out of a special pathway to citizenship.

Three children in DCS custody and the group Advocates for Immigrant Rights sued the agency's commissioner, Margie Quin, in a Tennessee federal court on Monday. They allege DCS lacks any system for identifying abused or abandoned minors who are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. As a result, the agency regularly fails to provide immigration services to initiate the process before a state-mandated age cutoff of 18, according to the complaint.

"DCS has a duty to support children pursuing this legal pathway as quickly as possible, and certainly before children turn 18 and the door to SIJS is closed forever," the children said.

They are seeking to represent a proposed class of children they claim have been denied services for their immigration-related needs, saying DCS is shirking its obligation to provide for the "care, protection, training and education" and "physical, mental and moral welfare" of all those in its custody.

Many children fled abuse, human rights atrocities, trafficking and other violence in their home countries, the plaintiffs said.

"In addition to these traumas, many risked their lives on their journeys to the United States — traversing thousands of miles by foot, bus, and train to find safety," they said, adding, "Regardless of their path to Tennessee, these children remain vulnerable without legal immigration status, barred from employment, healthcare, and many services, and are at constant risk of being detained or removed from the country."

The plaintiffs argued that Congress created the SIJS program to offer humanitarian protection to undocumented children who are eligible for long-term foster care — "exactly the group of children in DCS's care" — and to provide them a path to permanent residency status and U.S. citizenship.

One of the plaintiffs is a 15-year-old girl from Guatemala, identified as B.R. in the complaint, who was allegedly abandoned by her parents there and arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied in November 2021. She was placed in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which released her to the care of an uncle in Maryland.

She later went to live with relatives in Tennessee, where state Child Protective Services began an investigation into her living situation in October. B.R. was pregnant at the time and soon gave birth. A Nashville juvenile court found in November that she faced an "immediate threat of harm" and placed her in DCS custody, according to the complaint.

The agency then placed B.R. and her baby in a foster home, where they remain, but has allegedly failed to provide any immigration-related assistance, not even telling B.R. or her adult advocates that she may qualify for SIJS. That is despite repeated requests for such help from her court-appointed guardian and her foster parent, according to the complaint.

"They have received no substantive response," the plaintiffs said. "DCS staff either stated that they had no knowledge of the situation or that they would look into it, but then failed to follow up."

Without the program's protections, B.R. can't receive benefits including health care coverage, student financial aid and public assistance and will lose access to extended foster care when she turns 18. She won't be able to get work authorization or a driver's license, the plaintiffs said.

She has received a notice to appear in immigration court, which puts her at risk of being removed from the U.S. and separated from her baby, a U.S. citizen, according to the complaint.

DCS has allegedly made no effort to monitor her immigration case or to keep her or her attorneys apprised of its status, leaving her vulnerable to missing hearings or showing up unprepared.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights has provided legal services to children in DCS custody in recent years, according to the complaint. It argued that the agency's lack of immigration support has allowed young people to miss their chance to connect with services and apply for SIJS, saying the situation threatens the group's ability to carry out its mission well enough that it can continue to secure grant funding.

The plaintiffs asked the court to order the agency to implement policies and procedures to ensure that children in its care are able to access immigration benefits that are available to them.

The agency is aware of the importance of such opportunities, they said, noting that it gives a handbook to older youth transitioning out of its care that advises them to take steps to become legal residents.

"But due to DCS's failures, many immigrant children age out of DCS custody in a far worse position than they entered — having lost their most promising opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. As a result, these youth are at an increased risk of being deported," the plaintiffs said.

Quin's office declined to comment on Tuesday, deferring to an agency spokesperson who said in a statement to Law360: "The Tennessee Department of Children's Services is committed to acting in the best interest of Tennessee's children and youth. The attorney general will handle next steps in the pending litigation."

Attorneys for the children and advocates declined to comment further on Tuesday.

The plaintiffs are represented by Paige Waldrop Mills of Bass Berry & Sims PLC, Irene A. Firippis, Paul M. Thompson, Rodney D. Swartz and Sam C. Neel of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and Katrina Braun, Leecia Welch, Nicole Taykhman and Stephen Dixon of Children's Rights Inc.

Counsel information for Quin was not immediately available.

The case is B.R. et al. v. Quin, case number 3:23-cv-00737, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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