MEXICO CITY — A North Carolina judge has ruled that Felipe Montes — an illegal immigrant who lost custody of his three children when he was deported from the U.S. — can be reunited with the boys who had been placed in foster care after their mother was deemed unfit to raise them.
The Los Angeles Times reported the case of Montes, a Mexican national, in March, as an example of the difficult decisions local child-welfare officials are increasingly forced to make when a parent is deported, a common occurrence under the Obama administration’s aggressive deportation policies.
The New York-based Applied Research Center, a liberal group, determined that more than 46,000 parents were removed from the United States in the first half of 2011.
Montes, 32, crossed the border illegally in 2004, eventually landing in rural North Carolina, where he married a local woman and started a family while eking out a living working at a mill and doing odd jobs. He was deported in October 2010.
His wife, who has a criminal record and claims to suffer from mental problems, was eventually found unfit to raise their boys, currently 5, 3 and 2, and they were placed with a foster family.
But Montes, with the help of a court-appointed attorney in Sparta, N.C., began petitioning the courts to grant him custody of the children, in hopes that they could join him in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
Montes’ friends and family said that he had long been the primary caregiver for his boys. But North Carolina social workers were worried, among other things, about Montes' living conditions in the Mexican countryside, noting that Montes’ modest rural home had to have water trucked in, and was already housing six people.
Montes was able to return to the U.S. earlier this year on a temporary humanitarian visa, allowing him to attend the legal hearings that would decide the children’s fate. In the courtroom this month, the attorney for the office representing children in such matters, known as the guardian ad litem, argued that Montes had neglected and physically abused the children, including subjecting them to living at times without heat or electricity, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
At one point the attorney, Louise Paglen, cited testimony that indicated that “Montes had allowed feces to dry on one of his children to the point that it caused the child's skin to irritate and bleed and that he could not adequately explain why his two older sons had black eyes,” the paper reported.
Montes’ attorney, Donna Shumate, argued that the father had done his best in difficult circumstances, noting that he held down a regular job at a mill until he injured his back.
On Tuesday, Allegheny County District Court Judge Michael Duncan ruled that Montes should be reunited with the children, Shumate said.
But Shumate said there are numerous issues to be worked out. The court wants Montes to live with the children in North Carolina for a trial period beginning Dec. 7. The court will review his performance as a parent to make a final custody decision Feb. 19, Shumate said.
To remain in the country, however, Montes will have to have his temporary visa extended. It is scheduled to expire Dec. 23. Also, the guardian ad litem’s office has indicated that it will appeal, Shumate said.
Montes, reached by telephone Wednesday, agreed that there was more yet to do. But he said he had already had a chance to spend a few days with his boys for the first time since his deportation.
“I feel really happy,” he said. “I stayed away for two years, and now come back and see my boys growing up.”
Officials for the guardian ad litem’s office could not be reached for comment.