Santa Cruz teens continue crusade to end family ‘reunification camps’

WATSONVILLE — Friday marked 90 days since a group of Santa Cruz teenagers watched their classmate and her younger brother forcibly shoved into a van and transported to a court-ordered Southern California family reunification program.

A video one of the girls took of the encounter and posted to social media helped to shine a rare light on a nationally standardized tool used in contentious custody disputes and drew many to the girls’ subsequent campaign to end such practices statewide.

A group of about 50 community members gathers Oct. 27 at Lighthouse Point to bring awareness to their concerns about parental reunification camps and forced transports, such as one organizers said affected their teenage classmate earlier that month. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

The three-month time period marked the original length of a court order granting sole custody to the two Santa Cruz children’s mother, a period in which their father and friends have had no contact with the two. On Friday, Pacific Collegiate School sophomore Claire Protti and a group of supporters attended a family court hearing related to the case at the Watsonville branch of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court. Outside the Second Street courthouse, the group waived handmade posters calling for the return of the two children and an end to the reunification programs and transport agencies.

Judge Rebecca Connolly’s discussion calling for an extension of the temporary custody orders elicited groans from several of those gathered for the hearing.

“I was in despair,” Pacific Collegiate School sophomore Claire Protti said outside the hearing. “I haven’t heard of a single case in which the minors are returned to their normal life after 90 days, but I guess I’ve just been holding onto hope.”

Protti, who attended school with the older of the two affected children, said she felt “the overwhelming evidence of the situation and the video” should have helped sway the judge.

Nearby, Karen Laing, a “heartbroken” grandmother to the children, approached to say that she had dubbed Protti and her friends “warrior women” working on her family’s cause. The children’s family on the father’s side have heard only that they are residing at an undisclosed location out of state.

“I can’t tell you how much these young women have meant to me in my struggles through all this,” Laing said. “They give me hope for the future, which I didn’t have a lot of. In all this bleakness, this is the ray of light.” Related Articles

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To that end, the group of teen girls brought their case in November before the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, where, until recently, Protti’s uncle Ryan Coonerty served as an elected leader. The board agreed to investigate options to regulate private youth transport companies hired to remove children from their homes.

More recently, the group traveled Tuesday to protest in front of the State Capitol building in Sacramento. While there, three organizers had scheduled meetings with lawmakers representing the Santa Cruz area, including state Sen. John Laird and recently-elected Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, Protti said.

“We actually, on the way, talked to various people, some of which are probably legislators,” Protti said. “We got exposure, in a way, which was very powerful.”

The teens are advocating for the introduction of state legislation that would ensure future limits or an outright ban on forced transport and reunification camps, Protti said. In the meantime, they hope to continue to keep a public eye on the often private and delicate court proceedings.

“It would be the biggest blessing just to be able to see their faces and just to see that they’re not in danger and for them to know that we’re here,” Protti said. “It’s been 90 days, we’re not giving up, ever. We love you so much and we’re going to keep fighting and we skipped school to do this.”