Foster care agency faulted for turning in immigrants

A foster care agency was faulted for calling immigration agents on a Naples family.

By Carol Marbin Miller

March 27, 2009 / Miami Herald

Immigrant advocates are calling on Florida child welfare administrators to repudiate the actions of a private Naples foster care agency they say snatched an infant and toddler from their mother and grandparents -- and then turned the family in to immigration agents.

Advocates claim that Family Preservation, a Collier County child welfare group under contract with the Department of Children & Families, reported 19-year-old Karen Arriaga and her parents, who are undocumented, to immigration agents, and then arranged for the family to be rounded up at their offices.

''Family Preservation, instead of trying to bring families together, is destroying this family, tearing it apart,'' Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

John de Leon, a Miami attorney representing both the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates, said the foster care agency's actions will have a chilling effect on the state's ability to protect children, because migrants will hide from authorities rather than seek or accept help.

''Given the demographics of the state of Florida, this sends a very dangerous message. Hispanics not only live in South Florida, they live in all areas of the state and work in all areas of the state and raise families in all areas of the state,'' de Leon said.

Karen Arriaga's two sons, ages 1 and 2, were sheltered by DCF following a confirmed report that she had neglected them, said de Leon. In mid-February, the teen was asked to come to Family Preservation's offices for a supervised visit with the youngsters. There, de Leon said, she was detained by either Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents or the Collier County Sheriff's Office.

On Feb. 12, Karen Arriaga, who lives in Bonita Springs, was charged by the Collier County Sheriff's Office with one count of child neglect without great bodily harm, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.

A week later, on Feb. 23, Victor Arriaga, Karen's father and a Mexican migrant, and his wife were told to report to Family Preservation's offices for a visit with their grandsons, Victor Arriaga said. The boys' grandmother, Elida Arriaga, who is from Guatemala, had the infant in her arms and was playing with him when social workers asked about the couple's immigration status.

''My wife had the child in her arms, and they took the child away from her,'' Arriaga said. 'My wife did not want to let go of the child, but she had to let him go. The officer said, `If you don't shut up and do what we say, we will bring you to Miami, both of you.' ''

Arriaga's wife is in federal immigration detention, de Leon said. Karen Arriaga is in the Collier County Jail. Victor Arriaga was released by ICE, though he does not know why, he said.

Erin Gillespie, a DCF spokeswoman in Naples, flatly denies that her department, or any private agency under DCF contract, alerted immigration agents to the Arriaga family's status.

''Absolutely under no circumstances did anyone from the Department of Children & Families or our contract providers contact any immigration officials regarding this family,'' Gillespie said.

Gillespie acknowledges, however, that both DCF and its contractors are required to cooperate with both state and federal authorities, and do provide information to both ICE and the Collier County Sheriff's Office -- which is deputized by ICE to enforce federal immigration laws.

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