In a disputed custody case, the children of a Spanish-speaking father will remain with their Slovak-speaking foster parents
A Cook County Juvenile Court judge on Thursday took a step toward awarding guardianship of two young children to their foster parents in a case that has raised concerns about how Illinois child welfare officials serve Spanish-speaking, Latino families.
Judge Peter Vilkelis determined that the foster parents should become the permanent guardians of the two older children of Jorge Matias, who was deported last fall to his native Guatemala.
The placement most likely won’t be finalized until early next year.
ProPublica Illinois reported extensively on the case in June as part of an investigation that found that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services repeatedly failed to serve Spanish-speaking families and live up to a 1977 federal court consent decree known as Burgos.
Matias had been persuaded to waive his rights under the court order that would have required his children be placed in a home where Spanish, his primary language, was spoken, state officials found.
Instead, the children — now 5 and almost 2 — were sent to a foster home where neither Spanish nor English was spoken. The foster parents spoke to the children in their native Slovak, which DCFS last year concluded was the oldest child’s primary language. As time passed, Matias was unable to communicate with the boy, who now speaks some English.
“Mr. Matias was handicapped from the start when he tried to bond with his son based on language needs alone,” agency officials wrote in a report last summer.
Matias completed numerous requirements to gain custody, including visits, therapy and years of drug testing. But the case was delayed because of his troubles bonding with his son and his continued involvement with the boy’s mother, who struggles with a heroin addiction.
The children were taken into DCFS custody after they were born with drugs in their system. A third child, a 6-month-old girl, is expected to continue living in Chicago with Matias’ aunt and uncle.
Matias, who has never been accused of abuse or neglect, has sought to have all three children sent to live with him in Guatemala.
“I want my children here with me,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “That’s been my priority.”
ProPublica Illinois has been barred from attending the hearings because of concerns for the children’s privacy. The foster parents, who have grown to love the children and have asked about adoption, have repeatedly declined interview requests. Lawyers who represent the children and the state declined to comment Thursday following the hearing.
Matias’ lawyer, Victoria Almeida, called it “a sad day for Mr. Matias and for all Latinos, including children who are in the juvenile court system.”
When immigration agents arrested Matias last year, he had been living illegally in the U.S. for more than a decade. Matias, who has no criminal record, was pulled over by agents looking for somebody else, federal officials have said.
His detention, and eventual deportation, came as DCFS officials investigated Burgos violations and delays in his case. The agency’s inspector general later found a pattern of discrimination against Matias and concluded he was encouraged to abandon his Burgos rights.
The ProPublica Illinois investigation found some 300 potential Burgos violations since 2005; that number is almost certainly an undercount, however, given the agency’s repeated failures over decades to properly document families’ race, ethnicity and language preferences.
In response to the investigation, Illinois lawmakers called on DCFS to improve services for Spanish-speaking families, saying it is a critical issue because of a heightened fear among undocumented immigrants of interacting with government agencies.
DCFS acting Director Marc Smith pledged to hire more bilingual workers, recruit additional Spanish-speaking foster families and upgrade technology to better track whether children of Spanish-speaking parents are placed in foster homes where the language is spoken.
A DCFS spokesman said Thursday that the agency was making progress on those reforms. It has added 31 bilingual employees since last summer, just shy of Illinois law that mandates 194 bilingual workers, and is reinstating quarterly meetings for those employees to meet with DCFS’ Burgos coordinator.
“DCFS is continuing to prioritize recruitment of foster parents, including Spanish-speaking foster parents,” the spokesman added.
Meanwhile, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group that represents families in the Burgos litigation, went to court for the first time in nearly a decade to file a formal appearance in the case the week the ProPublica Illinois investigation was published.
The Burgos litigation had been inactive — forgotten in “some kind of black hole,” as one former court monitor described it — for so long that the federal judge last assigned to the case is on senior status and no longer regularly hears cases. In June, the case was assigned to another judge.
MALDEF officials previously said they had tried at various points over many years to obtain information from the state that would allow them to see if DCFS was meeting its obligations under Burgos. They said they never received the information they needed, which means that for years no independent party has monitored whether DCFS is complying with the court order.
This week, MALDEF attorneys again asked for information, their first communication about Burgos with state officials since 2012.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general’s office, which represents DCFS in the Burgos litigation, said the office is reviewing MALDEF’s request for records and data.
DCFS has insisted that Burgos violations are not widespread and that its compliance rate is around 92%. That rate, however, does not take into account cases in which parents like Matias effectively give up their rights by saying they prefer to receive services in English on the agency’s language determination form.
State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat, said she plans to ask DCFS for a report on how many families waive their rights.
“If a parent waives that right, are they doing it because they do, in fact, believe there is no need to have a Spanish-speaking case worker,” she asked, “or is it because they feel they are forced to waive their rights?”
Matias had told staff at Children’s Home & Aid, the private agency that handled his family’s case for years, that he struggled to speak English. It was only after his English-speaking caseworker assured him that she would get him the services he needed in Spanish that he waived his rights, records show. He later told DCFS that he had initially requested services in Spanish but was told that selecting English as his primary language would expedite the case.
Even last year, DCFS records made clear that Spanish was his primary language “regardless of what a language determination form may or may not state.”
This week, Matias said he was researching the possibility of getting a visa to meet with his children in another country. He doesn’t expect to be able to return to the U.S.
He sees his 6-month-old daughter nearly every day in video calls with his relatives in Chicago. His aunt holds the phone up to her face, and Matias says he listens to her make noises.
He said he communicates with the older two children a few times a week. He thinks back to the last time he held them, just a few days before his arrest last year by immigration authorities.
His son “told me, ‘Daddy don’t go.’ He asked me to stay,” Matias said. “I thought I would see him in a few days.”