Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Thousands of ‘Lawyer Moms’ Will Swarm Congress To Fight For Migrant Children

'We have a reaction as mothers to what’s been going on.'

Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

Thousands of ‘Lawyer Moms’ Will Swarm Congress To Fight For Migrant Children

'We have a reaction as mothers to what’s been going on.'

What began as an online support group for lawyers with children has become a mobilizing force for thousands of people planning to bombard congressional offices nationwide on Friday in protest of the federal government’s treatment of migrant children and their parents.

Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an immigration attorney in Texas, wrote that she recently hit “the lowest moment in [her] career” when she met with an asylum seeker who had been separated from her son under the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy. According to Lincoln-Goldfinch, the woman had been holding the 5-year-old in her lap when an officer approached and informed her that he would be taking the boy “to the other side.”

My son clung to me and said he didn’t want to leave me,” she told Lincoln-Goldfinch. “The official grabbed him out of my arms and took him away and I just stayed there crying and crying.”

Lincoln-Goldfinch shared her client’s story in a “lawyer moms” online forum and found she was far from alone. The “heart-wrenching” stories these attorneys were hearing from new clients inspired the group to organize, Erin Albanese, an attorney in Washington State, told The Appeal.

Albanese, Lincoln-Goldfinch, and fellow moms decided to confront legislators face to face. They created a separate Lawyer Moms of America Facebook group on June 7 to plan and announce Friday’s Day of Action. Participants plan to drop off letters to demand family reunification and an end to the indefinite detention of migrant children who enter the country.

The online forum was not politically engaged before now. But once the Facebook group was created, the network of lawyer moms and their allies grew exponentially. There are now 15,000 supporters of the Facebook page, and Albanese estimates that roughly 50 percent of the people participating in Friday’s action are lawyers and mothers.

”We have a reaction as mothers to what’s been going on,” Albanese said. “As lawyers, the rights violations and illegality of it all really resonated with us in a different way.”

The action was first envisioned as a protest against the indiscriminate separation of children from their families, which ramped up after the Trump administration announced its zero-tolerance approach to prosecuting undocumented immigrants in April. As directed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, federal prosecutors are to pursue criminal charges against anyone caught attempting to cross the border into the U.S.  The policy has resulted in migrant children, who can’t legally be detained by federal immigration officials, being torn away from loved ones.

Now, organizers are expanding the scope of Friday’s event to protest the potential incarceration of migrant children under a “temporary detention policy” outlined in an executive order signed by President Trump last week. The order directs the Department of Homeland Security to keep migrant children and parents locked up together. Detained children, including those separated from their families and ones who crossed the border as unaccompanied minors, have already been kept in tents in scorching hot weather, injected with psychotropic drugs against their will, and beaten and berated.

”It’s an issue that’s pretty universal,” Albanese said of the separations. Trump’s executive order did little to assuage the group’s concerns. “[It] appears to provide for migrant families to be detained together indefinitely, essentially creating internment camps,” Albanese said. The order also fails to address the plight of children who have already been separated, as Trump has punted the responsibility of coming up with a reunification plan to Congress.  

Until that happens, children will continue to suffer in detention and flounder during court proceedings, said Minda Thorward, another Lawyer Moms of America organizer based in Washington State. Thorward, who also practices immigration law, said stories of children holding on to drawings of their loved ones resonated with her. “These are people who are already fleeing horrible conditions: domestic violence, gang violence, even just abject poverty. Not having children with their parents just compounds that trauma,” she told The Appeal.

Emotional trauma is not the only consequence of separating children from their parents, Thorward said. Immigration court does not guarantee the right to counsel, which means young people—including babiesmust somehow represent themselves in complex interrogation over why their families left their homes.

“Are they part of a particular social group? Where is a safe place in their country [where] they could live? Did they try to go to the police in order to get protection? None of that is articulable by a 3-year-old or even a 6-year-old,” Thorward said.

The results of this breakdown are already becoming clear. Sitting before a judge last week, a 3-year-old boy in El Paso reportedly stared at a picture book and responded “¡Es un avión!”—It’s a plane!—when asked for his name.

According to Albanese, demanding that members of Congress reunify and assist migrant children is just the starting point for the newly politicized Lawyer Moms of America. The group has already created a list of resources and possible actions for supporters to take, such as calling their governors to pull the National Guard from the border or pressuring state attorneys general to sign on to federal lawsuits against the latest detention orders. Individual lawyer moms have also protested outside detention centers alongside immigration rights organizations. But future political engagement will largely depend on what Congress does.  

“Our goal is to end family separations and indefinite detentions and to reunite the families. Until that is happening, we’ll keep finding ways to raise our voices,” Albanese said. “We’re gonna hold their feet to the fire.”  

A Massachusetts District Attorney Tries To Crown His Successor

In the Berkshire County DA race, the establishment is resorting to extreme measures to ensure it maintains power and avoids change.

Departing Berkshire DA Doug Capeless and his interim successor, Paul Caccaviello
Berkshire County District Attorney

A Massachusetts District Attorney Tries To Crown His Successor

In the Berkshire County DA race, the establishment is resorting to extreme measures to ensure it maintains power and avoids change.

Berkshire County, the sparsely populated Massachusetts region abutting New York, should be gearing up for an unusual event in the fall: an open race for the district attorney’s seat. But the departing DA short-circuited that electoral process and anointed his successor through backdoor channels. Emails obtained by The Appeal reveal how the old guard has tried to hold on to power and beat back reformers’ challenge.

On March 1, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless stepped down after 14 years in office. The resignation was apparently a strategic move to ease the path to election for his hand-picked successor, First Assistant District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, with the help of Governor Charlie Baker.
“I’m taking this step now,” Capeless told reporters at his resignation press conference, “because I want Paul to be able to run as the district attorney, as I did 14 years ago…. I want to thank Governor Baker and Lt. Governor [Karyn] Polito for their careful consideration and confidence that Paul is the right person for the job.”

Running as an incumbent is a huge advantage, said Drew Herzig, an organizer with Indivisible Pittsfield, a local progressive group. Incumbency affords candidates the weight of the office and allows them to draw on existing donor and influence networks — no small feat in the Berkshires, where candidates don’t need a lot of money to be competitive and where reputation and connections can be key to influencing voters.

Emails between Capeless and Baker’s office, reviewed by The Appeal and included below, tell a story of what numerous criminal justice professionals and observers described as an unprecedented level of cooperation between the DA’s office and the Baker administration to handpick the DA.

The handoff appears to have received the governor’s blessing after a meeting on Feb. 7, the emails show. Baker’s chief legal counsel, Lon Povich, coordinated meetings for Capeless and Caccaviello with both Baker and Polito. Capeless sent the governor’s office a timeline for his resignation and Caccaviello’s appointment, the emails show, but Povich was unable to endorse Capeless’s proposed sequence of events until the February meeting.

Capeless told Povich he intentionally took out re-election papers before his March 1 announcement to confuse  local media.

“Still on track,” Capeless reassured Povich of the handoff to Caccaviello, “just stalling.”

Later, Povich provided feedback on Capeless’s resignation letter.

“Glad this is working out,” he wrote.

Capeless said repeatedly in emails to Povich that he was delighted that the transfer of power would ensure Caccaviello had a leg up on the competition in the Democratic primary. To that end, the departing DA presented Povich a proposed timeline that would allow the governor to appoint Caccaviello and give the new DA “ample time to form a campaign committee and gather the necessary signatures to get on the ballot.”

In a brief phone interview, Capeless said that because this was the first time he had resigned from a position, he couldn’t speak to how normal the process was. The former DA said Povich’s edits to Capeless’s resignation letter and the governor’s involvement with Capeless’s resignation timeline was “not unusual” and that he would not discuss the February private meeting.

Caccaviello was unavailable for comment for this article.

A Democrat, Caccaviello will face two progressive challengers in the primary on Sept. 4:  local defense attorneys Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight. Harrington, who was the first to publicly announce her candidacy, entered the race with an existing political machine that was ready to go after an unsuccessful state Senate bid in 2016. She told The Appeal she plans to pursue a different approach to criminal justice.

“This is a really important race for the future of Berkshire County,” Harrington said. “It’s an opportunity to move into the future with a DA using evidence-based programs that address the root causes of why people get involved in the criminal justice system.”

Restorative justice, an approach to crime that seeks to rehabilitate and repair harm rather than punish, is gaining in popularity in the country. Harrington hopes to pursue these ideals in her DA office, she said. She wants to create a citizens’ advisory board to hold her office accountable and to get input from the community for what crimes to prioritize. As DA, Harrington said, she would work to ensure not only that people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system have a chance to rehabilitate themselves without facing unfair incarceration, but also that people just entering the system have the opportunity to keep their mistakes off their permanent record.

While it’s an idea of criminal justice that might have been out of place in decades past — especially after the “tough on crime” legislation of the Reagan era — today Americans are more amenable to restorative justice and alternatives to punitive incarceration.

“The conversation over crime has been fear-based; to be a DA, you must run on being ‘tough on crime,'” said Harrington. “Now, I think because of the opioid crisis, the conversation has opened up and all people are seeing what communities of color have known for a long time: The system doesn’t work.”

It’s a theme that has become more prevalent as liberal candidates join the criminal justice system—most famously in the last year with the election of District Attorney Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.

“I was very inspired by Krasner,” Harrington said. “I look forward to working on specific policies like ending mandatory minimums, limiting fines and fees for the indigent, ending overcharging for nonviolent offenses, and diversion programs that shift resources from incarceration to programs that address underlying causes leading to criminal conduct.”

Along with the already established Berkshire County Drug Court, Harrington wants to pour resources into diversionary programs for established and new offenders. To do that, the DA’s office under Harrington would choose not to prosecute certain crimes if the defendants seek treatment and therapy.

The prospect of change, Harrington believes, scares the DA’s office. Capeless’s office has long had a reputation in the commonwealth for being particularly draconian and harsh. Locally, the former DA is known for his zealous pursuit of drug crimes: In one instance, he tried repeatedly to use school zone charges against one teenager over a decade ago. Capeless has also railed against marijuana legalization and opposed the creation of an alternative drug court.

Harrington sees the power transfer between Capeless and Caccaviello as evidence that the office is afraid of a real debate on the issue of criminal justice and fears being held accountable by the public.

“The fact that they will go to these lengths to avoid a contested election where the community is looking to have these important conversations on criminal justice just says they are afraid of that conversation,” said Harrington. “And I think they have good reason to be afraid.”

Rahsann Hall, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ Racial Justice Program, said the handoff is especially “disturbing” because of its impact on the democratic process. The power transfer in the Berkshires adds to the public’s misconceptions about the office, he added. In fact, an ACLU of Massachusetts poll found that 38 percent of state residents don’t even know DAs are elected.

Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Hall said. But that disguises an ugly truth: The commonwealth has one of the highest racial disparities in incarcerated people and a high rate of recidivism.

“This suggests that the system, as it functions now, does not work,” said Hall, “at least not in a way that promotes healthy and happy communities.”

With all the discussion around mass incarceration and the recent passage of criminal justice reform in Massachusetts, Hall said, choosing the right DA is more important than ever—though he made clear that he was not endorsing any candidate either personally or officially.

“The most significant player in the criminal justice system that has most power is the DA,” Hall said.

DAs have control over prosecution decisions, said Harrington, and that should lead to more fair and just outcomes. But Caccaviello’s office and the office of his predecessor haven’t taken advantage of that discretion. Rather, the policy of the office is that their role is solely to enforce the law, and that’s a position that Harrington disagrees with vehemently.

“The reason we have an elected DA is because the DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community,” she said. “The fact that we have a DA that doesn’t understand that should trouble people.”

More in Explainers

Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

Credit: Tami Jo Urban (Flickr/CC by 2.0)

Why do Prisoners in Florida Keep Dying?

With privatization of the state’s prisons in full swing, this year is on track to be its deadliest on record.

On June 6, the Florida Justice Institute filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections over the murder of Anthony Vidal. A prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution, Vidal was serving 15 years for a nonviolent robbery. On March 11, 2016, Vidal’s cellmate, Tarrin Blue, beat and strangled him to death, according to the lawsuit. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami Dade Police Department still have an open investigation into Vidal’s death.  

Blue had a history of mental illness and attacked another prisoner in front of officers just a month earlier, according to the lawsuit. Instead of placing Blue in a mental health ward, he was housed with Vidal in the prison’s administrative confinement, which is given closer supervision than the rest of the prison. Vidal was there for violating prison rules by possessing a bootleg cellphone.

For nearly 10 minutes during the attack, the lawsuit alleges, Vidal cried out for help, but correctional officers did nothing and audio in the cell had been turned off. Vidal wasn’t found until a routine check revealed what happened, and it took another 10 minutes for medical personnel and officers to arrive. No correctional officers were held accountable for placing Blue in a cell with another prisoner and failing to intervene when other prisoners tried to alert them to the attack. The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on Vidal’s death other than to say it is still “an open and active investigation” with the state and county police.

What happened to Vidal is part of a worsening trend in the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida is currently on track to outpace its 2017 record for most prison deaths at 428, with 97,794 prisoners in the state system. As of June 2018, 216 people have died in Florida prisons. In 2015, the Miami Herald chronicled a steep rise in prison deaths since 2000, and since then the numbers have continued to climb. A portion of these deaths are natural, but many occur under suspicious circumstances and investigations regularly take several months to years to determine a conclusive cause of death.

Based on the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2014, the average mortality rate among prisoners in the United States was 256 per 100,000 state prisoners. In 2014, Florida was just behind Texas in highest number of in-prison deaths with 346 total, though Texas has a substantially larger state prison population at 166,000 prisoners. Florida’s prison mortality rate has steadily increased since 2013, despite a decrease in prison population.

Critics blame the rise, at least in part, on understaffing and inadequate healthcare, problems they say have grown under Governor Rick Scott. Before Scott was first elected in 2010, he promised to reduce prison spending overall by $1 billion. His strategy was to reduce overall prison costs by privatizing the state’s prison facilities and services.

In his first budget, Scott cut 1,690 state correctional jobs and move 1,500 prisoners to private facilities. During a Florida Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections secretary, Julie Jones, noted that turnover for correctional officers had increased 95 percent since 2009, and over 75 percent of correctional officers in the state prison system had less than two years of experience.

Randall C. Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said cutting corners on prison spending is dangerous. “The state prison system is understaffed by at least 1,000 guards. Florida is the third-largest prison system in the country. It’s very expensive to run a system this large and the legislature doesn’t want to pay for it.” Berg said.

The governor’s privatization of healthcare has also caused problems, Berg argued. The institute has filed several wrongful death lawsuits against Florida Department of Corrections and led class action lawsuits on behalf of prisoners who were denied treatment for hernias and hepatitis C. A court ordered a preliminary injunction requiring the corrections department to treat prisoners with hepatitis C in December 2017 and the department settled the hernia lawsuit for $1.7 million in April 2017.

In 2014, the Palm Beach Post reported that early in the corrections department’s contract with Corizon, one of the country’s biggest prison healthcare providers, prison deaths hit a 10-year high. Several prisoners complained of health problems being left untreated or said they were given Aleve and Tylenol to treat serious illnesses, the story explained.

One of those prisoners, Donna Pickelsimer, died after she was treated with Tylenol and cold compresses for months as her lung cancer remained undiagnosed. The same year, 48-year-old prisoner Michelle Tierney died at Lowell Correctional Institution. Tierney was reported to have cysts, pneumonia, and septic shock, which the infirmary diagnosed as arthritis. Both deaths were reported as natural. Contacted by The Appeal, the Department of Corrections said these deaths “occurred in 2014 when the department was under different leadership and contracted with a different provider for inmate health services.”

At the time, Corizon provided health services to Florida’s prisons, but the company ended its five-year $1.2 billion contract three years early in May 2016. Corizon said at the time that it terminated the contract because of inadequate funding from the state, but it had also been under fire from lawmakers and advocates for the quality of its care. Corizon declined The Appeal’s request for comment about deaths that occurred during its contract. “Providing medical information on those individuals would be a violation of HIPAA privacy laws,” Martha Harbin, a spokesperson for Corizon, said.

Shortly before the contract ended, Michael Baker, 42, died on March 10, 2016 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Florida, after complaining to family members for months he was being denied medicine for sickle cell disease. “Baker wrote to me over a period of weeks from the fall of 2015 until early 2016,” Baker’s attorney, James V. Cook, told The Appeal in an email. “Somehow I couldn’t get a medical release from him to review his medical files. He mentioned two nurses … He said he would complain to them of severe pain, throwing up blood and they would tell him to ‘go ahead and give up and die,’ and ‘lay your Black ass down and wear it.’ He said they refused to let him see a doctor. By the time I finally got his medical records, he was dead.”

Cook is in the discovery process of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Baker, and he said the trial will most likely begin in the middle of next year. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections, Patrick Manderfield, wrote in an email to The Appeal:  “The death of Michael Baker is currently still under active investigation by our department’s Office of the Inspector General. Due to its open status and the HIPAA federal privacy rule, we don’t have any additional information available to provide at this time.”

The department cited a variety of possible reasons for the recent rise in prison deaths. “The influx of contraband, specifically synthetic and homemade drugs, is a contributing factor to the increase in inmate violence and in-custody deaths,” Manderfield wrote. The department also cited an increase in an elderly prison population, defined as prisoners age 50 or older, and an increase in prisoners with mental illnesses.

But David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says privatization is part of the problem. “The claim a private corporation can do the same job as state employees more cheaply and create profits for its shareholders sounds too good on its face and the evidence suggests it’s false,” he told Prison Legal News last year.

The most recent private contract for prison health services was awarded to Centurion, the only government contractor providing health care to prisoners held by the Florida Department of Corrections and a prolific donor to the Republican Party. The $375 million deal to provide healthcare services to all Florida state prisons is nearly $40 million higher than previous contracts to provide healthcare, and includes an 11.5 percent “administrative fee.” The department did not respond to a request for comment on Centurion’s contract.

In May 2018, Governor Scott signed an $87 billion state budget that shorted prison funding by $28 million. The Florida Department of Corrections announced plans to cut mental healthcare, substance abuse, re-entry and work release programs to cover the shortfall. “In order to secure a health services contractor, fund the increased pharmaceutical budget, and adjust for reductions, we’ve unfortunately had to make some very difficult decisions,” Jones, the corrections department secretary, said in a statement at the time. The department would not comment on current staffing levels, but a spokesperson said a 2017 pay raise for correctional officers and human resources improvements have been implemented as a result of the cuts.

More in Podcasts