Originally published on July 26, 2020 at WTOL.com
TOLEDO, Ohio — Following the national unrest when the death of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police made headlines, Ohio senators introduced three police-related bills in July.
One of the most significant changes that could come to the state is SB 337, which would allow the Ohio attorney general to investigate and prosecute police-caused deaths.
In June, Gov. Mike DeWine called on lawmakers to approve many police reform laws, including mandating independent investigations and prosecutions for all officer-involved shootings and all in-custody deaths.
This bill would end the current practice of police departments looking into deaths caused by officers while also allowing an independent party to prosecute them if deemed necessary.
"There is a conflict of interest because district attorneys have to work with police all the time for the majority of their cases. So, for them to then turn and investigate on the people that they often rely on for evidence for their prosecution is problematic," Toledo Black Lives Matter activist Julian Mack said.
But this is only a start, Mack and Bowling Green State University Professor Philip Stinson said.
Stinson, who is a former police officer and specializes in criminology, said the bill does not go far enough because of the only two criteria that would allow the AG to prosecute.
The bill's language says the AG can prosecute if the person who was killed was unarmed or if there was a question as to whether the victim was armed and dangerous.
"I don't think that goes far enough. I think, actually, it should go farther and it should be that the attorney general's office investigates all fatal shootings by the police," Stinson said.
Ohio Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, who is cosponsoring the bill, said the current text is just a start and she would like to see all cases investigated by the AG.
Stinson added one issue he sees with the bill as it's written is it may not trigger the attorney general to get involved if the police claim the person killed had a weapon.
"The problem with that though, as we've seen many instances over the last decade, the police owned the narrative in these cases. And sometimes police officers lie in their statements, in their written reports, in their sworn testimony," he said.
Stinson has been tracking police misconduct since 2005 and added not all police officers lie, but there have been cases around the country where it has happened.
On the other hand, Toledo Police Patrolmans' Association President Michael Haynes said although he supports the bill, he doesn't believe officers would be against any investigation of police misconduct.
"If the death was justified by the officer, then the death was justified by the officer. If the death was not justified by the officer, then it was not justified by the officer. I don't feel that there are any policemen that would cover up or try to justify a death that was clearly not justified," he said.
Haynes added the facts surrounding any police-caused deaths would speak for themselves.
Fedor said since there are only a few sessions left in the current general assembly, SB 337 and other bills recently introduced will have to be re-introduced once the legislature is back in session.
"We will continue to introduce these bills, go through the bill making process. And the more people write to their legislators, call their legislators, and call the governor, the more that this is considered a priority, and it will make it all the way through both chambers and to the governor's desk," she said.
The senator is also cosponsoring another bill that would prohibit officers from engaging in biased policing and other status-based profiling.
Although supportive of these bills, Mack added there is more to be done in terms of targeting poverty and inequality in order to fix policing issues in the state and in the country.
"We're trying to police and prison our way out of drug addiction, we're policing and prisoning our way out of mental health issues. We are policing and prisoning ourselves out of interpersonal conflict. And in reality, a lot of these derive from poverty and the exploitation of America's poor," he said while calling for more money to go to education and social issues than police departments.
Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, introduced a resolution calling for justice for victims of police excessive force but also opposing the defund the police movement raised by Mack.
"There's a false belief that continues to be perpetuated within mainstream politics, which is that more police translates into greater safety. And that just is not reality. More resources in our community lead to greater safety," Mack said.
Gavarone said in early July she believes defunding law enforcement would leave agencies understaffed and officers undertrained, which would increase the risk of officers using excessive force.
Meanwhile, Fedor also said she would work to get fair funding for public education across Ohio and denounced the current state formula that each school district receives money based on student enrollment and property wealth.
"My experience as a classroom teacher and someone who's worked on strengthening public education and those elements that are very important, it really starts with funding," Fedor said.
"Fair funding for public schools is a great start because education is the great equalizer," she added.
Will Ohio have only one ballot drop box per county? An appeals court says it's up to election chief.
Originally published on Oct. 4, 2020 at WTOL.com
TOLEDO, Ohio -- Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose can allow county boards of elections to place more ballot drop boxes in their jurisdictions or maintain his directive of only one box per county, an Ohio court of appeals ruled Friday.
The ruling comes after a month-long debate in the lower and appellate courts when a Franklin County voter and the Ohio Democratic Party sued LaRose, hoping to get interference that would allow boards of elections to install more boxes.
LaRose issued the directive after he asked Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to weigh in on whether state law allowed for more than one drop box per county. After waiting for an answer, the secretary said in a press conference on Aug. 12 he decided to allow only one box instead of waiting for continued legal analysis.
The secretary added on that occasion he thinks expanding the boxes is a "fine idea for the future" and that he hopes the legislature acts on it. He added with just a few months until Election Day, he doesn't think it's time to change the way his office has operated and risk litigation.
It's unclear if LaRose will allow more than one box per county now that the court of appeals has given him the discretion to go in either direction.
"We received and are reviewing the decision and are pleased with the court’s ruling to reverse the injunction," secretary of state spokesperson Maggie Sheehan said.
Sheehan was referring to a lower court judge's previous ruling of placing a temporary injunction in the secretary's directive.
That lower court judge issued an opinion on Sept. 15, describing many factors that play a role in the issue, including aspects related to the variations of size and population of the 88 counties in Ohio.
"While the time of day, road network, traffic patterns, availability of public transportation, and other features within each county are obvious factors that impact the accessibility of one or more ballot drop boxes, as a generalization it can be said that counties covering a relatively larger geographic area will require more travel time by voters than is needed in smaller counties," the judge wrote.
In northwest Ohio, the city of Bellevue is located in four counties - Erie, Huron, Seneca and Sandusky. The closest county board of elections to the city's downtown is 14.6 miles away, in Sandusky County, and a round trip takes about 38 minutes without traffic.
Ohio voter Lewis Goldfarb, who testified in the lower court and was one of the plaintiffs in the case, hopes to cast his ballot using a drop box since he doesn't feel comfortable voting in-person because of COVID-19 and his own health history, according to court records.
Goldfarb is a resident of Hilliard, located in the western part of Franklin County, and would have to drive 15 to 20 miles to the board of elections, taking an hour for a round trip, unless there are additional boxes and one is located closer to his home, court records said.
Members of the Sandusky County Board of Elections considered this issue and voted unanimously to purchase two additional drop boxes for the county on July 13, according to Board Director Sharie Chagnon. She said in mid-September the board was waiting for the issue to be resolved in the courts.
An uptick in Ohio voters requesting absentee ballots has already impacted the Wood County Board of Elections box. As it filled up quickly in the past few weeks, board director Terry Burton said the box needs to be bigger.
“We wanted a bigger box just to take care of the volume. We’re hoping to have it installed and ready to go before the Oct. 6 start of the ballots being mailed out. We've had this drop box for about 10 years, it's worked fine and it worked fine in the primary," he said.
Meanwhile, Burton said on Monday, before the court of appeals ruling, the Wood County board would decide on whether to get more boxes depending on the timing of the litigation. The members would have to see if they would have enough time and resources to install additional boxes.
Lucas County commissioners issued a statement on Saturday, asking LaRose to issue a new directive allowing boards to determine how many boxes are appropriate for their respective counties.
Ins and outs of the lawsuit:
The Ohio Democratic Party along with Franklin County voter Goldfarb had sued Secretary LaRose in August following his directive, seeking interference from the courts so that boards of elections could place more than one ballot drop box.
University of Toledo law professor Lee Strang said the case was mainly about the meaning of the word "deliver" in Ohio law when it comes to the voting and return procedure section of the revised code.
The statute says, "The elector shall mail the identification envelope to the director from whom it was received in the return envelope, postage prepaid, or the elector may personally deliver it to the director."
"The question is when the phrase says the elector may personally deliver to the director, does that mean the boards of elections can set up one of the voting boxes or can it set more of those and how many," Strang said.
LaRose interpreted that "personally deliver to the director" means boards of election can create one drop box at the board director's office, which is generally where the board office is as well, according to Strang.
On the other hand, the Ohio Democratic Party and Goldfarb argued it's up to the individual boards of elections to decide on how many boxes to place.
But the court's decision can't be based on the best interpretation of the law, according to Strang. He said the person legally authorized to conduct elections is the secretary of state and courts should defer to his interpretations unless they find his take to be illegal, meaning it's unreasonable and arbitrary.
"In other words, no, only a crazy person would agree with you. That's the standard the court has to use to find the secretary's interpretation is illegal. That's a crazy interpretation. And that, I think, is very hard to shell and the court did not provide enough arguments to support that conclusion," Strang said.
Lower court judge Richard Frye used the words unreasonable and arbitrary to describe LaRose's directive in his opinion when issuing his first ruling.
But Strang said after reading the briefings and opinion filed in this case, he believes LaRose's interpretation has more to commend, basing his opinion on the fact the secretary had more arguments, some of which the lower court didn't address.
"I'm confident that the court has not shown that the secretary's interpretation is arbitrary," Strang added.
After Frye issued his ruling, LaRose's office released a statement saying the directive remained in place because the judge didn't rule on placing an injunction on it.
Afterward, the judge issued a preliminary injunction and gave LaRose 24 hours to respond. The secretary of state then appealed the case in the higher courts.
Originally published on Aug. 9, 2020 at WTOL.COM
TOLEDO, Ohio — With 86 days until Election Day on Nov. 3 and 58 days before early in-person voting is supposed to start in Ohio, broad information on the choices voters will have and the procedures that will be in place amid the pandemic are unclear.
The primary elections in Ohio saw wide-ranging effects caused by the coronavirus. Scheduled for March 17, the primaries were extended to April 28 while voters were asked to vote absentee as in-person voting was limited to people with disabilities and those without an address.
Although having fewer voters casting ballots in the primaries is expected, participation in Ohio this year was down to 1.8 million voters compared to 3.3 million in the 2016 primaries - a drop of 54%.
But it was pretty close to 2018, which is the most recent year available. That had 1.67 million voters.
Meanwhile, experts say the pandemic will have a dramatic effect again on how many will vote in November.
"What states need to do between now and the election is quickly make a choice about how they're going to conduct the election. And then, conduct widespread voter education to inform voters how exactly the process is going to work to make voters feel more comfortable, that it will be conducted fairly, safely and uniformly," Cato Institute Legal Associate James Knight said.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose held two virtual events last week aimed at clarifying questions about the upcoming elections, though those were focused mainly on mail-in voting. He did, however, say all three ways Ohioans have been able to vote will be available (casting ballots through mail, early in-person voting, and voting in-person on Election Day).
Activist Ruth Leonard with the Community Solidarity Response Network of Toledo said right now, her main concern is making sure eligible Ohioans are registered to vote and are educated about their options.
"Normally, about a month prior is when you find out about early voting, about the early voting polling locations. I'm still not 100% sure of what is happening in regard to that. I think just making sure that the communities know what's going on, how to vote, where to go to vote, when the polling locations will be open, if the polling locations will be open, how to apply for a ballot," she said. "These are all things that I think should be pushed out into the community."
LaRose's office said there won't be any changes from last year when it comes to polling locations. There will be a single early voting center determined by the county board of elections.
Knight said there are measures states can adopt in order to make voting safer, such as offering curbside voting in which people would be able to vote from their cars; extending the time polls are open; expanding early voting; and allowing mail-in voting.
LaRose's office released a November plan in June, saying all 88 county board of elections in the state will be required to offer curbside voting for voters physically unable to enter polling locations.
His office also said the times polls open and close have not changed this year.
In Ohio, the law states voters must have four weeks of early in-person and absentee voting. The state is also one of the few that opens the polls on the weekends during the early voting period.
The secretary of state's office will send out 7.8 million absentee ballot request forms around Labor Day weekend to every voter in the state following years of precedent, LaRose said last week.
The Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan public policy organization, analyzed how mail-in voting went in every state and the District of Columbia during the pandemic and assigned a letter grade based on their performance.
In July, Ohio was one of 21 states to score a C while only seven states received an A and 12 others received a B. Eight scored a D and two an F.
The institute considered factors such as how easy it was to get an absentee ballot (states that mail ballots to voters got extra points), how easy it was to fill out the ballot, how long voters had to return ballots and whether states allowed for alternate ways of submitting ballots.
An updated version of this study released on Aug. 7, after several states expanded mail-in voting, shows Ohio scored a B along with 14 other states.
University of Maryland Associate Professor Ethan Kaplan, who has studied how early in-person voting has affected turnout in Ohio, said uncertainty in voter participation this year is expected.
Kaplan said although polls that try to predict turnout are relatively accurate, it's still a guess based on people's answers and how they have voted in the past. But the pandemic is unprecedented, Kaplan said, and other factors are still up in the air when it comes to in-person voting.
"There were a number of examples (around the country) where there weren't enough people who could staff the polling stations. And so they consolidated, and then, they might also do some strategic consolidation based upon governance and a certain party not wanting people living in a certain area to vote as much because they're afraid that they'll vote for members of the opposite party," he said.
Kaplan said voters do tend to cast in-mail ballots when they are able to, although that has not had an effect in overall participation thus far because those would be from people who would have voted anyway. But the pandemic has changed that dynamic this year.
Leonard said she believes voters learned how the electoral college works after Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and President Donald Trump won the delegates.
She added people have become more politicized this year and have recognized why their votes matter not only when it comes to presidential candidates, but senators, representatives and elected officials at every level of government.
"Now, we have a much wider community of people, who in the wake of George Floyd, are recognizing that (importance). Now we've taken it as a moment to not only say Black Lives Matter but to say, this is how Black Lives Matter plays a role in our everyday life. And this is how you can help," Leonard said. "And it's by something as simple as using your voice to vote."
Originally published on Aug. 24, 2020 at WTOL.com
TOLEDO, Ohio — President Donald Trump denounced ballot drop boxes, such as the ones that will be available in Ohio for the general election, as a "voter security disaster" in a tweet Sunday morning that has since been flagged for violating "Twitter Rules about civic and election integrity."
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has directed all 88 county boards of elections in the state to offer one singular drop box in which voters can cast their completed ballots and absentee ballot applications.
Meanwhile, Ohio Democrats have come out asking LaRose to expand the number of boxes throughout the state.
Trump's tweet pointed the finger at Democrats and raised questions about the integrity of those boxes by asking, "who controls them, are they placed in Republican or Democrat areas?"
LaRose's office declined to comment on Trump's tweet, but his directive requires that every day, at least one Republican and one Democratic member of the local board or staff retrieve, together, the boxes' contents.
Additionally, the boxes are required to be monitored 24/7, though LaRose's office did not go into detail about how exactly this will be done or what measures will be in place.
In fact, Ohio Democrats have been critical of LaRose for not allowing county boards of elections to make multiple boxes available for voters, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who accused the secretary of suppressing voters last week.
The secretary tweeted back at Brown, saying every county will have a drop box available for voters for the first time in a general election. He added that had never happened in Ohio before, "let alone when" the senator was secretary of state.
Ohio Reps. Paula Hicks-Hudson and Catherine Ingram addressed a letter to LaRose with similar criticism on Aug. 12.
"We have asked you to install multiple secure drop boxes so voters may confidently deliver their ballots back to their local officials without three trips through the mail. You've said you can't do it - even though boards of elections have used drop boxes for years," the letter read.
Back in March, when the primaries had to be postponed to April and voters were urged to vote absentee, Gov. Mike DeWine signed a coronavirus-relief bill that required boards of elections to have drop off boxes available for voters.
Under this bill, LaRose issued the directive for the boards to have the same boxes available for the general election on the same day the Democrats sent him the letter.
Again, LaRose addressed the issue during a press conference on that same day and said that adding new boxes would be under the Ohio General Assembly's purview.
"Candidly, I asked the attorney general to weigh in on this because it was a question of law and whether the state law permitted that. What I decided to do, rather than to wait for continued legal analysis, was to move forward and say, 'We are not going to allow the addition of more drop boxes,'" he said.
The secretary said he thinks expanding the boxes is a "fine idea for the future" and he hopes the legislature weighs in on it. He added with just a few months until Election Day, he doesn't think it's time to change the way his office has operated and risk litigation.
Recently, the boxes' use has been expanded to allow voters to drop off their absentee ballot application forms as well. On Oct. 31, the contents must be retrieved at noon, which is the deadline for when county boards must receive absentee ballot applications. Similarly, on Nov. 3, the contents must be retrieved at 7:30 p.m., when polls close.
Starting Tuesday, Sept 1., all boards of elections in the state must begin to provide voters with 24/7 access to the drop box.
Originally published on March 25, 2020, at WTOL 11
TOLEDO, Ohio — Right now, the question at the top of every renter's mind is whether they can get evicted if they can't afford rent while living in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that led leaders all over the world to order people to stay home.
While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an immediate relief plan last Wednesday for homeowners across the country, suspending all foreclosures and evictions for the following 60 days, efforts to protect renters have been limited to the local level.
"Right now, the stay-at-home order doesn't really give any direction on what is going on with the state of eviction law. I believe the order is silent and it's causing municipal courts, which are the courts responsible for overseeing eviction hearings, (be at) their discretion what they are going to do moving forward with evictions," said Kayleigh Burden, a Toledo attorney who specializes in tenant and landlord disputes.
While cities like Cleveland and Detroit have issued moratoriums on eviction orders, meaning landlords can't file a notice in housing courts, other cities have allowed them to continue to file cases, but are holding back on scheduling hearings. That includes Toledo Municipal Court.
So, technically, yes. Renters can get evicted depending on which municipality they live in and the actions being taken there. In other instances, they may not get evicted right now, but the court order may come in a few weeks or months.
Toledo Fair Housing Center Director of Public Policy and Community Engagement Sarah Jenkins said local leaders are doing a good job and HUD's relief for homeowners indirectly benefits renters.
But there is still a need to have broader state or nationwide guidance in terms of prohibiting evictions and long-term financial assistance so people can get back on their feet, Jenkins said.
"Let's say this crisis passes in a few months and things get back to normal. Obviously we don't know that at this point, but let's say that happens. What happens then, when somebody is faced with three months of rent due all at one time," she said. "So, how do we provide financial assistance to make sure people can continue to keep a roof over their heads and maintain housing even as this crisis, hopefully, starts to resolve?"
Jenkins added statistics in Toledo showed people having difficulty affording housing even before the current crisis, which only adds to the burden.
In fact, according to a recent analysis from the Fair Housing Center, between September of 2014 and September of 2018, 24,000 evictions were filed in Toledo Municipal Housing Court, which translates to roughly 10% of the town's population.
"So, compound that with a potential loss of employment and bills piling up, there's going to be a need for some kind of financial assistance to prevent people from being displaced," she said.
What if I can't pay my rent?
If you are having issues making your rent, here are a few pieces of advice from Burden and Jenkins:
- Know your rights: If a landlord wants to evict you, they can't just take self-help measures and change the lock or put your property on the side of the road. Burden said even in the middle of all the craziness surrounding this pandemic, there are still legal procedures landlords have to follow.
"I've been advising a lot of callers that they (landlords) can't just throw you out. And if they do, there are ways to get compensated for that, although it's going to take a while now because all these civil cases are being put on the back burner until further notice," Burden said.
Also, it's important to remember that notice from your landlord is different from an official court order. So, if you do receive a verbal or written notice, you can either contact an organization such as the Fair Housing Center or an attorney to make sure that what they are doing is proper.
- Talk to your landlord: If you know you will struggle to pay rent, Jenkins advised you to reach out to your landlord and have a conversation to find out if they are willing to work with you.
If after this conversation your landlord tries to take action, you can reach out to a private attorney or a legal-aid organization, such as the Fair Housing Center or Legal Aid of Western Ohio.
- Look for financial assistance organizations: Jenkins said if you are experiencing financial hardship overall, there are organizations in the Toledo area, such as United Way, that can help you with paying rent and other needs.
Originally published on July 12, 2020 at WTOL.com
BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — After a spike in coronavirus cases in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine's administration issued a mask mandate last week in Wood County and other counties but left it to local health departments to enforce it.
This has been the case for all orders the state administration has issued since the beginning of the pandemic, according to DeWine's Press Secretary Daniel Tierney.
Tierney and Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said concerns over non-compliance with the current Ohio Department of Health order and the mask mandate should be directed to the local health department.
Wood County Health Commissioner Ben Batey said not only the health department has inadequate resources to enforce every single violation, but his efforts will be focused on educating the public.
"For us, it's just been primarily more education than enforcement. Enforcement becomes a big issue from a legal aspect as well as just a time constraint aspect," he said.
But Ohio law clearly states no person shall violate any rule the department of health adopts to prevent a threat to the public caused by a pandemic, and health authorities as well as law enforcement agencies, such as the sheriff's office, shall enforce those rules.
Those who violate a health department order can be charged with a misdemeanor of the second degree, according to the code. The current ODH Director's Stay Safe Ohio Order goes further and says violators can be fined $750 and spend up to 90 days in jail.
Wasylyshyn said over the weekend his deputies haven't been enforcing social distancing measures listed in the ODH order and won't enforce the mandate either.
"It’s not our place to be driving around chasing people down for not wearing a mask, that’s just not what we’re going to be doing, we’re not gonna be driving around getting and knocking people over and tackling them and telling them to put a mask on," he said.
When it comes to making arrests and charging people with a misdemeanor, the sheriff referred to Ohio code section 3701.13 that says local health commissioners are the ones to decide on enforcement of health laws and orders.
"If the health commissioner ordered me to do it (make arrests, enforce the mandate) that may be a different story, but the health commissioner is not ordering me to arrest people. The health commissioner has agreed the best way for us to deal with this is to defer to him," he said.
Tierney said the governor never expected to see a lot of arrests under his orders since Ohioans have been pretty good about protecting each other throughout this pandemic.
"If somebody is out there, they're positive, they know they're positive and they're out there purposely infecting people, that rises to criminal behavior," he said. "And we may want to have our local health department and law enforcement work together on criminal prosecution."
Batey echoed the sentiment, saying somebody would have to be "pretty defiant and belligerent" for the penalty of the order and the law to be leveraged against that person. He added, however, city-issued mandates would be more effective when it comes to enforcement and incentive for people to wear masks.
"I think it will make it easier for people to recognize that when you're within the city, this is their requirement," he said. "And they do have some mechanisms that make it easier for them to enforce. They can set their standards to whatever level they want. And then that actually shows that law enforcement is going to be directly behind it."
Batey said the health department has not issued any citations for any businesses throughout the pandemic. He said this is because the cases in which the health department has had to follow-up with businesses or event organizers for possible infractions, people have learned what they needed to do and complied with the guidelines.
Napoleon nurse who died while waiting for transplant leaves legacy of organ donation advocacy, medical research
NAPOLEON, Ohio — Emily Jackson, a cystic fibrosis patient, fought for her life while waiting for a double lung transplant at the Cleveland Clinic until the last minute.
She was diagnosed with the incurable disease when she was a few months old and had to live with a strict routine of breathing exercises, medical check-ups and multiple hospital stays throughout her life.
Although many people who live with cystic fibrosis can manage to live normal lives, Jackson's health had been declining since April when she got onto the transplant list.
Late last week, after her lungs deteriorated and she contracted an infection, her body couldn't take it anymore and she passed away Sunday morning.
But as everyone who knew Jackson well will testify, she was a fighter and so are her relatives, who now will battle to keep her legacy alive.
"She should be remembered as an advocate for CF research, an advocate for organ and tissue donation. An advocate for making changes in the system, as people get on the list to get registered for organ donation," her mom Sarah Jackson said.
The Children's Organ Transplant Association was organizing a benefit in her honor to help raise money to pay for the lungs for which she was waiting.
The event will still go on, and the proceeds will go to help the Jacksons with medical and funeral expenses.
The fundraiser is Sunday, June 9, at the American Legion in Napoleon from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The benefit will feature auctions, raffles, a lottery board, bake sale and more.
Jackson left behind two items that will be available for bidding at the event. One is a plaque that she painted herself that says "Bless our nest" and the other is a basket with children's toys, because she wanted the benefit to offer something for kids as well.
"Towards the end, she (Emily Jackson) loved just being at home and being in her own space. She loved being in that nest surrounded by all of those that loved and cared for her," her mother said. "There are several people that already are hoping to be the highest bidder to receive that on Sunday."
Her dad, Patrick Jackson, added that his daughter was incredibly happy of how the plaque turned out.
"She was so excited that this turned out so good. She was just so proud. She got to feel like she was contributing to the COTA benefit," he said.
Her former roommate and friend, Shawna Boger, 22, said what has always stood out to her about Jackson was her strength.
"She obviously taught me what it meant to live every day and really fight for your life and for what you wanted and what you deserved," she said.
Boger, who also went to nursing school, said she registered as organ donor when she became a nurse and got her license.
"I made that decision when I got my license. I think Emily had a big impact on it. We weren't super close at that age, but it was always in the back of my mind. Like if something happened to me and she needed something, or anybody really needed an organ, why would you take them with you?" Boger said.
Boger wasn't the only one to say that Jackson lived a life of caring, not only for herself but for everyone around her as well.
"Even though she was faced with all these struggles, she always made sure that I was taken care of and that I always got the most out of everything, even though the focus was a lot on her," she said. "I was talking to her best friend last night and she told me that when Emily got listed on a transplant list and she was going to be away in Cleveland for awhile ...Emily told her, 'Make sure Alyssa is taken care of.'"
In the end, Jackson wanted to be remembered by her unbridled resilience, her family said.
"She always said 'You can't get rid of me that easily.' And the comfort I can take from this is because she was a fighter. I know that she would not have passed away if there was any fight left in her," her mother said.
Originally published on Dec. 25, 2018, at Cronkite News
READING, Pa. — Even though she spent 19 months in detention after crossing the border to seek asylum in the U.S. in 2015, Karen Zelaya still was able to celebrate her son’s sixth and seventh birthdays with him.
They were not the happiest of birthdays.
Zelaya and her son, Steven Albanes, who are from El Salvador, were being held together with dozens of other families at the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, one of just three family detention centers in the U.S. and the only one run by a local government.
“For his second birthday (in the center), by 2017, he told me that if he wasn’t free on his birthday that he would jump out of our room’s window,” said Zelaya, who said her son twice threatened to kill himself while they were at Berks.
“I told him, ‘My love, you will get hurt,'” she said in Spanish. “‘I know I will get hurt,’ he told me.”
Protesters in this eastern Pennsylvania community gather for regular vigils outside the 96-bed facility, singing and praying in Spanish and English and calling on state and local officials to shut it down.
“We’ve had suicidal kids, we’ve had a rape. We’ve had people detained for two years while suffering both medical and psychological trauma,” said Bridget Cambria, a lawyer at Aldea, a nonprofit that works with Berks residents. “We’ve had kids that when they’re released from the facility never escape the stress they have suffered.”
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they have a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse or assault in detention centers like Berks, where detainees are encouraged to file complaints and staff members are trained in how to handle them.
A statement from ICE paints a very different picture of Berks, which it described as “an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity as families await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries.”
It said Berks, a converted nursing home, provides playrooms, a gym, educational services, social workers and medical care, and access to legal counsel among other benefits. The agency said Berks even has a recreational coordinator who helps organize events at the center and field trips for the children.
Far from wanting to close it down, the Department of Homeland Security is considering plans to open more family detention centers.
DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services in September proposed a change to current rules that would let the federal government license such facilities, instead of the currently required state licensing.
State licensing “is problematic,” DHS said, because states typically don’t have facilities to hold minors and parents together. Having federally licensed facilities to hold families would let the government provide the same “materially identical assurances about the conditions of such facilities” that courts require.
The three family residential centers in the U.S. have a total of 3,326 beds at a cost of about $289 million a year from 2015 to 2017.
DHS said it wants to expand the number of such centers to prevent “a powerful incentive for adults to bring juveniles on the dangerous journey to the United States and then put them in further danger by illegally crossing the United States border.”
That incentive, according to the government, is a 1997 court order, the so-called Flores settlement, that requires the government to place minors in immigration cases “in the least restrictive setting” for the least amount of time possible.
In many cases, releasing a child from custody will require the release of the parent, leading immigrants to hope, “whether correct or not, that having a juvenile will result in immediate release,” the DHS said.
That’s not what Zelaya was thinking when she showed up at the border in Piedras Negras, Texas, in August 2015 with her son, then 5, and asked for asylum. She said she left El Salvador after witnessing gang members commit a crime.
“It wasn’t a murder, but I believe they felt threatened,” so they told her to go away and not say anything, said Zelaya, now back in El Salvador but living in a different town. That’s when she decided to leave for the U.S. with her son.
Asylum seekers who claim they are afraid to return to their home countries first get a “credible fear” hearing to review their claim. If they pass the interview, they are released on parole to await a fuller court hearing on their claim, said Adriana Zambrano, a volunteer at Aldea, the nonprofit where Cambria works.
“After they get released, that doesn’t mean that they have won asylum,” Zambrano said. “That means that they have won the opportunity to get in front of an immigration judge and conduct regular immigration proceedings.”
Zelaya and her son were held in Texas for two months, then transferred to Berks while their asylum claim was processed. After their claims were rejected, however, Zambrano and 27 other mothers went to court to challenge the denial, extending their stay at Berks well beyond the 20 days most people are held there.
“They had lost their hearing … so they had to stay in detention while they were arguing that they had a right to go to federal court,” said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued their case in federal court.
But pressing their legal claim meant staying at Berks.
“Detention alone is inherently damaging to children,” Zambrano said, “just any form of confinement is bad for children. But if you add that to the Flores proposed regulations, the results would be dismal.”
But ICE says that while Berks is a fenced, secure facility that detainees are not allowed to leave, they are free to move about certain areas within the facility. There are no “secure doors” in the residential areas of the facility, which is decorated with “colorful murals and pictures,” the agency said.
Requests to tour the facility were not acknowledged.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has tried to revoke the facility’s license, said spokesman J.J. Abbott, and has urged the Trump administration to close Berks. But it’s a county facility run on contract with the federal government, so there is only so much the state can do, Abbott said.
The state could issue an emergency removal order if it found “misconduct that causes immediate and serious danger to the life and health of the children,” he said. But the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services “conducts regular unannounced inspections and has not found grounds” to close the center.
But Cambria said the damage is being done, even if it’s not so blatant.
Cambria said she has provided counseling since 2014 to almost every family to pass through Berks, which she said is often “held up to be the model of family detention.” She said the government is aware of the many problems at Berks but that it will “go to great lengths to recreate this policy and expand it.”
“I think they’re just walking themselves into a lot more problems than they realize,” she said.