When her 14-year-old son was sent to Orange County’s juvenile hall for bringing a pocket knife to school, Marisa never imagined that he would be placed in deportation proceedings as a consequence.

But that’s exactly what happened in 2012 to Alex, who is undocumented and was referred by the Orange County Probation Department to immigration authorities while he was in custody. He was subsequently placed in deportation proceedings.

Since he is a minor in the juvenile justice system, Voice of OC is using the pseudonym of Alex, for the minor, and Marisa for his mother to protect the minor’s privacy.

Today, Marisa says that had she understood the immigration ramifications of Alex’s juvenile justice proceedings, the information would have guided her decisions in court in the spring of 2012 when he was found delinquent for carrying a weapon – a pocket knife – on school grounds and exhibiting a non-firearm weapon.

Alex said a friend gave him the pocket knife for safekeeping. While undressing in the locker room during a physical education class, another student spotted the pocket knife, which he had tucked into his waistband.

He never threatened anyone with the knife, he said.

Though Alex’s attorney advised him to accept responsibility for the offenses, now Marisa says that the matter should have been handled in school, not the juvenile justice system because Alex is a special education student with mental health issues.

“I think it was a big mistake because this stays on his record and it’s affecting his immigration hearings,” said Marisa in Spanish.

Last year, for example, because of his juvenile record U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected Alex for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA offers qualifying youth and young adults a temporary reprieve from deportation.

When Alex was taken into custody by immigration authorities in the summer of 2012, Marisa was not aware that her son’s juvenile court file was supposed to be protected by a state law that ensures confidentiality for minors in the juvenile justice system.

The law, Welfare and Institutions Code section 827, states that unless special permission from a juvenile court is granted, only a limited and specified group of individuals from the state’s juvenile justice system is given authority to inspect a minor’s case files.

Section 827 does not include federal officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (ICE), which investigates immigration law violations.

Marisa learned about the confidentiality law from Alex’s special education advocate, Steven Figueroa.

Figueroa also told Marisa that her son’s juvenile hall incarceration and referral to immigration authorities likely would not have happened if Alex’s school district had followed procedures set in place for students like Alex, who at the time was a 14-year-old eighth grader.

Figueroa got involved with Alex’s case shortly after his middle school expelled him for the pocket knife incident in March 2012.

Figueroa contended that the district had failed to correctly assess Alex after the incident, to provide him with the appropriate special education services, and to comply with the education code and regulations governing expulsions for students like Alex, who had a history of behaviors related to his disabilities.

“The district responded by ignoring his deficits, and allowing his disabilities to manifest so they could call the police,” said Figueroa, president and chief executive officer of Figueroa Community Consulting in Riverside.

“If the district had given him the correct assessment and correct services, it would have addressed his issues and he might not have acted out,” said Figueroa.

Appropriate and consistent services in and out of school would have given Alex the tools, strategies and alternatives to bringing a knife to school, he said.

The district subsequently came to an agreement with Marisa in late August 2012 and offered to reassess Alex, place him in a new school, and provide additional counseling.

“That’s what my son needed since he was little,” said Marisa. “Instead he would have a crisis and they would expel him.”

But by the time the school district made its offer, Alex had already been transferred from juvenile hall to the custody of ICE.

Alex’s tumultuous childhood and mental health issues led to problems at school.

His education records show that from the age of 8 and onward he bounced from the county’s children’s shelter to foster care to juvenile hall detention and then back to his home.

He’s attended public schools, therapeutic educational centers, transitional schools, alternative schools, and the Otto A. Fischer School at the juvenile hall in Orange. By eighth grade, when he took the pocketknife to school, Alex had attended at least eight schools.

His records show that what began in elementary school as angry outbursts toward his fellow students, throwing rocks at his teacher, and acting aggressively toward his siblings, escalated to more serious behavior as he got older.

In 2009, while in foster care, he was arrested for threatening his foster parents, threatening to injure himself and jump off a balcony. Then too, he was placed in juvenile hall.

His mental health records outline the services he received, including treatment through a foster care program designed to work with youth receiving mental health and child welfare services.

Court documents note that Alex’s diagnoses — post-traumatic stress disorder, along with oppositional defiant disorder (a pattern of angry or disruptive behavior) and dysthymic disorder (a long-term form of depression) — may have been significant factors in the incident at his foster home.

He was subsequently found delinquent for felony aggravated assault, making a misdemeanor criminal threat, and committing misdemeanor vandalism. However, the court, following the recommendations of the probation officer, social worker and foster program supervisor, recommended that Alex be placed on six months of probation and remain in the dependency system so he could continue to receive services through the foster care program.

At the time of the foster care incident, his psychologist described Marisa and her husband as her best family clients and noted that not only was Alex’s mom “very committed to the program” but that Alex had shown significant improvements.

New Research Leads to New Policies

How and why youth are incarcerated in the juvenile justice system is one issue that Elizabeth Cauffman, a University of California Irvine professor, is studying as part of a five-year research project on first-time juvenile offenders in three regions across the United States, including Orange County.

Cauffman has focused on the intersection of adolescent development and mental health throughout her career. The first thing to remember is that children aren’t miniature adults, she said.

“They are developmentally different from adults. In fact, a lot of the work that we’ve done in our research shows that youth are more impulsive, Cauffman said. “They don’t think long term, they have a harder time resisting the influence of peer pressure, and study after study has shown this.”

The frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, planning, and resisting peer influence, doesn’t fully develop until age 25, said Cauffman,

“If we think back to our adolescence we all probably did something we know we shouldn’t have done. It probably might have even been dangerous or even pretty irresponsible and we did it anyway,” said Cauffman. “And it’s because of that disconnect between that cognitive system – knowing what you should and shouldn’t do – and that emotional system, that brake that can control those impulses to keep you from doing it.”

Over the past decade, as the juvenile justice system has caught up with this scientific research on how the brain develops, there have been changes in the law and how we treat juvenile offenders, Cauffman said.

For instance, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have abolished juvenile death penalties as well as sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders who commit homicides.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that children are different from adults and I think this recognition within the justice system – children are different, they have different needs, we have to address these needs – also brought to the forefront the mental health issues,” Cauffman said.

But with the closure of mental health institutions across the country and a lack of alternatives, she said the juvenile justice system has become the surrogate mental health system. That, in turn, has incarcerated youth who don’t belong in the system.

“The typical adolescent is going to have these struggles and these tensions, and then you throw mental health on top of that and you have a child who either has mental health issues like depression or anxiety or conduct problems, and it’s only going to exacerbate the developmental problems that we see,” Cauffman said.

Today, many detention facilities across the country use a mental health-screening tool to assess whether an incarcerated juvenile should be referred for treatment and services. The Orange County Probation Department uses this tool known as the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument Version 2, which does not divert youth from detention, but helps the department target minors who may need mental health services.

Thomas Grisso, one of the country’s leading experts on mental health and juvenile justice issues, said that numerous studies on incarcerated mentally ill youth have found that two out of three juveniles in detention centers have some kind of behavioral disorder, ranging from substance abuse to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Grisso, like Cauffman, said that even with diagnostic tools in place, detention centers aren’t equipped to address the needs of these youth who are better served in the community.

Some advocates have called for more resources to treat mentally ill incarcerated youth, but Cauffman said the issue should be reframed.

“Maybe the response is: get these children out of the system and get them the treatment and the services they need versus criminalizing their behavior, which is what we’ve basically done with adolescents in general,” said Cauffman. “We’ve criminalized adolescents and now we’re criminalizing the mentally ill adolescents.”

Specifically she cited zero-tolerance policies that she said have done more harm than good. Youth must still be held accountable, but the question is how they are held accountable and incorporating the proper response based on their developmental stage, she said.

Preliminary findings from Cauffman’s ongoing study of first-time juvenile offenders shows that youth who are not formally processed through the juvenile justice system and remain in school are less likely to reoffend.

This teenager was referred by the Santa Barbara Probation Department to immigration authorities while he was juvenile hall and was placed in deportation proceedings. (Photo credit: Yvette Cabrera)

The study focuses on offenders who commit what Cauffman describes as tipping-point crimes – offenses that defy easy categorization. They are neither status offenses such as a curfew violation nor are they violent offenses such as homicides that automatically get formally processed.

Cauffman described Alex’s 2012 offense — bringing a pocketknife to school — as a tipping point offense because he didn’t physically hurt anybody, but the offense is more serious than misbehaving in class.

Based on preliminary findings from studying first-time offenders with identical backgrounds (such as age, race, and neighborhood) and offense committed, Cauffman said minors who are formally processed through the juvenile system are more likely to be transferred to an alternative school, less likely to stay in school, and more likely to reoffend.

By contrast, informally processed juveniles will stay in school and are less likely to reoffend. By diverting juveniles from a traditional school setting, the system reduces their connection to school, which leads to more delinquency.

“So we’re actually creating the very problem we hope to avoid,” said Cauffman. “One of the best predictors of keeping youth out of trouble is engagement and connection to school…The more they feel connected and bonded to the school setting, the better they will do. And we are doing the exact opposite. With zero tolerance policies we yank them out.”

Given Alex’s mental health issues, a community-based model that would have allowed him to remain at home while receiving services, may have been a more appropriate response to his behavioral issues, said Cauffman.

A Downward Spiral

In spring 2010, Alex had returned home to Marisa from foster care. But toward the end of the summer, he argued with her because he had sold his guitar without her consent.

Alex punched her in the stomach, then was arrested and again placed in juvenile hall. Marisa told the probation department that while she felt that Alex should be held accountable for actions, she wanted her son returned home.

While at Orange County’s juvenile hall, several ICE agents interrogated 12-year-old Alex. But he wasn’t taken into federal custody or placed in deportation proceedings.

Probation records show that Alex received a warning from ICE “advising him if he continued to get in trouble he risked being deported the next time.”

In December 2010, during an assessment for his special education program, school records show that the ICE interrogation had left an impression on Alex.

When the assessor asked him what his three wishes would be, he said he wished that he had his [immigration] “papers,” to be 17, and to be a U.S. Marine. He also added that he was afraid of “being deported” and afraid of the “ICE Gestapo.”

Five months later, the Orange County Health Care Agency conducted a mental health assessment as part of Alex’s special education program.

The clinical psychologist who assessed him noted that he exhibited energy and imagination while playing with his toys, and demonstrated a quick mind and understanding during his interactions with the psychologist.

Now 13, he was still having angry outbursts and got into a fight at school. Yet his teacher described him as a great kid who had ups and downs, the records show.

Despite the turbulence he had faced in childhood, including domestic violence directed toward him and his mother, the psychologist praised Alex for his sense of innocence and curiosity.

Even with the obstacles he had faced throughout his life, Alex was not jaded, nor resigned to pursuing a negative path in life, noted the psychologist.

“Instead, he has real potential, which if supported properly will allow him to move beyond the cycle of behavioral concerns that have plagued him in the past. Mental health services have the potential to constitute an important part of this support,” he wrote, recommending individual therapy, medication management, case management, and other forms of therapy to help Alex do well in school.

Less than a year after that report, 14-year-old Alex landed in juvenile court because he had the pocket knife at school.

In the “advisement of constitutional rights” document that Alex signed admitting to his offenses, the court had him initial a statement that he understood that if he wasn’t a U.S. citizen “admission of the offenses charged may result” in his return to his country of origin.

He had initialed the same statement in 2010.

Later that summer, in July 2012, Alex stepped outside his home in violation of his confinement terms and set off the electronic monitor on his ankle, which landed him in juvenile hall once again.

It was during this period in juvenile hall that an ICE agent interrogated the 14-year-old, only this time Alex received more than a deportation warning.

The agent asked whether Alex was a U.S. citizen and where he was born, which Alex answered truthfully, saying that he had been born in Mexico. The agent then told Alex ICE would return the next month to pick him up, and probation records show that ICE placed a detainer on him.

Ever since ICE first interrogated him in 2010, Alex has imagined what he would do if he were deported. Most of his scenarios involve finding a way to return to the United States, not just because it’s where he’s spent most of his childhood, but also because he wants to serve in the military.

“I grew up here, I don’t know any other home besides being here,” he said.

The thought of her son living in Mexico without her distressed Marisa, who knew that given Alex’s mental health history the deportation would throw him off balance, even if he went to live with relatives.

“It would be very sad if he ends up deported, and that I can’t help him. That’s what worries me – that he’ll end up in Mexico,” said Marisa.

Given the resources, time and effort she had poured into helping her son, and the battles she had fought to get him the services he needed, she said it was unfathomable that he would be on the brink on being deported.

“Where are all the people who were supposed to help him… His record goes back to when he was a young child, and to see him now in this situation,” she said shaking her head.

She knew how precarious Alex’s situation was because he had been placed in deportation proceedings, but Alex couldn’t seem to grasp the consequences of his actions, she said.

She constantly reminded him to calm down and behave himself. But inevitably his temper would get the best of him and lead him straight into trouble.

Coming Thursday: The lost son: Marisa learns how Alex was referred to immigration authorities and tracks him down in a group home.

This project was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and through a H.F. Langeloth journalism fellowship with The John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at yvettecabreraoc@gmail.com.

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