Transcript

271:

Best Interests
Transcript

Originally aired 08.20.2004

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/271

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Colin was 14, a straight-A student, in a program for gifted kids. But he hated school. And this spring, a few weeks before the end of eighth grade, before he would leave middle school forever, he looked at his grade point average, did a little calculation, and realized something kind of amazing.

Colin Dunn

I had a high enough GPA that I could flunk every class in eighth grade all the way through, and I would still graduate. Even if I had turned in nothing, I would have had a D average for that semester. And the D average would turn into an overall B average overall. And so, I had no reason to go. So I didn't go.

Ira Glass

He didn't just quit school all at once though. For a while he went to class. But quietly, and deliberately, stopped doing his work, on principle.

Colin Dunn

There were lots of days where I just didn't do any work at all. And I would just sit through class and wait for the bell to ring, and give the appearance that I was working, or copy off people, or things like that, and so.

Ira Glass

Wasn't it more boring, doing nothing?

Colin Dunn

No.

Ira Glass

Did you have a book you were reading, where you could just kind of, sit in the back--

Colin Dunn

No. I don't really read, so.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Or a magazine, or something?

Colin Dunn

That's something that they could point at, though. I mean, I wasn't giving them anything they could point at. So if I did something like that, then they could say, well he was reading while we were supposed to be working.

Ira Glass

Right.

Colin Dunn

That would be deliberately defying their instructions.

Ira Glass

Or it's just sitting there and not working.

Colin Dunn

Right. There's nothing really they can do.

Ira Glass

And when it comes to high school, will you work in high school?

Colin Dunn

Of course. Because high school, you're working towards the rest of your life. You're working toward what college you'll go to, and what college you go to decides what career you choose. But middle school? My counselor reassured me that it doesn't count for anything. That this will be all disregarded after this year is over.

Ira Glass

He cut school completely one time. And then a second time. And both times, the school tried to call his parents, but Colin, naturally, intercepted those messages and erased them from the family answering machine. And the third day that Colin cut school, it led to a kind of uncomfortable moment for his dad.

His dad you see, is a behavior specialist for the public schools, in charge of training administrators how to keep kids doing what they're supposed to be doing. At a hundred schools, in three counties in Oregon, including the school that Colin attends.

Ira Glass

In your job, do you deal with kids who don't show up at school?

Corey Dunn

Yep. And I was in the school for a meeting regarding something else, and the vice principal said, oh, are you here because of the call? And I said, call? And she said, well Colin is not in school all day. And I'm like, news to me. And so I called my wife and she said, I got a call earlier--

Ira Glass

Can we just pause on that moment for a second? OK, so you're here to coach them about disciplining and controlling children. And in the middle of this, they say to you, oh by the way, you got our call about your son hasn't shown up today. What's that like for you?

Corey Dunn

It's a little, kind of, it's sort of almost like, belching in a crowd, you know. It's just a little awkward. So I left work and went home. So I went there, and there he was. Much to his surprise, he saw me walk in the door. Sort of like, what are you doing here.

Colin Dunn

He came into my room and, "Where the hell have you been?" And back and forth about, what were you doing, what were you thinking, what was your logic for this? And that's when I really told him. I had enough credits to graduate, and I didn't need to pass any more classes. There's no point.

Ira Glass

At some points in this fight, did you find yourself kind of convinced by him?

Corey Dunn

From the beginning. I know what schools are like. I am there. I know the reality of that. It would be one thing for me to have this illusion about that. But, I mean, there's a part of me that wanted to laugh. But there's another part of me that wanted to strangle him.

Ira Glass

So you're simultaneously proud of him, and completely flummoxed.

Corey Dunn

Yes. Baffled. [LAUGHTER] And beside myself. And needing to get back to work. And wishing this weren't so.

Ira Glass

It's kind of a stumper, what to do. On the one hand, Colin had a point. He was thinking independently, which his dad wants. Maybe the right thing to do would be to let Colin stop doing his schoolwork, and then force him to live through the consequences of that very adult decision. Maybe that would teach him something useful.

On the other hand, Colin had a history of trying to wriggle out of his responsibilities. And so letting him wriggle out of something so big and important, it just didn't sit right. His dad tried to convince him to return to school.

Corey Dunn

That event triggered a three week period of knock down, drag out, screaming, crying, yelling. And at one point, in the middle of an argument, I said Colin, I need to-- sort of in a moment of intensity-- I sort of went time out. You know, I need to clarify something here. And that is that, I don't know that I'm right.

Ira Glass

How'd that go over?

Corey Dunn

He said well that's reassuring. Sort of, well that's reassuring. So he was like, you're telling me, I got to go to school because da da da da, but you don't even know that you're right! I said, no, I don't know that I'm right. I said it's my best guess, given the information available to me.

Ira Glass

Colin's dad says this is par for the course. You can't raise kids without getting into situations where you don't know what to do. Because as kids develop, they fight against you, try to get their independence. And sometimes you have to let them win those fights. And sometimes you have to stop them. And at every stage in their growth, there's going to be situations where it's going to be unclear what to do, what is best.

Which brings us to the subject of today's radio program. From WBEZ Chicago, this is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Today we have two stories about adults struggling to figure out what is in the best interest of some child. And in situations where, what is best is not so clear. Act One of our program, I'd Prefer Not. In that act, as you heard, a 14 year old boy nearly gets the last word with his own father.

Act Two, Exodus of One. In that story, a three year old girl comes into this country from another country with illegal papers. And authorities don't know what to do with her, and make their best guess. Years later, one of the officials goes on a search to find out if they did the right thing. Stay with us.

Act One. I'd Rather Not.

Ira Glass

Act One. I'd Prefer Not.

So during this three week fight between Colin and his dad, Colin did agree to go back to school until it was resolved. And one day in math class, the teacher, as you'd expect, noticed that Colin was doing absolutely nothing.

Colin Dunn

She asked me if I did my homework last night, and I said no. And she asked me why, and I said, because I don't want to. And she said, OK, well are you planning on doing it? And I said, if I feel like it. So she sent me to the office.

Ira Glass

And did you say this in kind of an angry way? Or were you just as neutral--

Colin Dunn

I was no, really polite about it. I said, well, there's no point. So she sent me to the office. It wasn't like I was trying to be mean to her about it. I mean she even told my mom later that, well, he was really polite about it.

Ira Glass

And so she sends him down to the office.

Corey Dunn

She can't have him, I mean, it's open defiance in front of all the rest of the students. And if she says OK, the rest of the students look around, say, hmm. It worked for him.

Colin Dunn

I was in the office, and I had been waiting in the focus room, which is basically a room with a table and a chair in it. And I was probably in there--

Ira Glass

The focus room?

Colin Dunn

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Meaning like, focus on what you had done?

Colin Dunn

I guess.

Ira Glass

The focus room.

Colin Dunn

There was one window, that had no handles on them. There's no way to get out besides the door.

Ira Glass

Well there's no way to get out of any room besides the door.

Colin Dunn

Well, the window, but--

Ira Glass

Oh, the window, I see what you're saying. [LAUGHTER]

Colin Dunn

They actually took the handle out of the window. And it was hot in there. And I'd probably been in there for an hour and a half, to close to two hours. And then my dad came.

Corey Dunn

I walked in the room. And I said, what can I do to help? And so we left the building and walked around. And I had the, you can't throw in the towel speech.

Colin Dunn

Throwing in the towel, yeah, he used that a lot.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Colin Dunn

It was his favorite analogy. I probably hear that about 10 times a week.

Ira Glass

You can't throw in the towel.

Colin Dunn

You can't throw in the towel.

Corey Dunn

I said, I'm not going to let you throw in the towel.

Colin Dunn

You can't throw in the towel. Can't throw in the towel. I mean I would hear it over and over. I could hear it coming. I could be like, oh here comes the towel. I could mouth it, I could mouth the words.

Ira Glass

Now were you aware during this period that you were posing kind of a puzzle for your dad?

Colin Dunn

I was. And I was enjoying it.

Ira Glass

Say a little more about that.

Colin Dunn

He deals with kids who have problems like that every day. And so, he's an expert. It's like, it's trying to beat Michael Jordan on a one-on-one, you know.

Ira Glass

Was there like, a most satisfying moment of it? That you remember you just thought, like, yes, OK.

Colin Dunn

Well actually, yeah.

Ira Glass

When?

Colin Dunn

When he told me that he didn't know if it was right. That was the moment when I thought, I really beat Michael Jordan.

Corey Dunn

What I figured out was, that what we really needed to do is get through the end of the year. And I had this discussion with Colin. And we agreed. So what I worked out was him being able to come to Chicago from Oregon. And be with his sister for a couple of days for a weekend. And--

Ira Glass

Oh, you gave him a reward, if he would actually go to school.

Corey Dunn

Right.

Ira Glass

Oh. A bribe.

Corey Dunn

Well-- yeah.

Ira Glass

I asked your dad how it was resolved. And he said he basically just tried to bribe.

Colin Dunn

[LAUGHTER] Did he say how he would bribe me?

Ira Glass

That you got to come out to Chicago.

Colin Dunn

He thought-- oh, so he was trying to bribe me with the Chicago trip?

Ira Glass

Well, he didn't-- yes.

Colin Dunn

Is that what he said?

Ira Glass

That's pretty much, yeah.

Colin Dunn

Well, I guess that it-- I look at it now, and I guess yeah, he did bribe me.

Ira Glass

And is that a bad thing?

Colin Dunn

I think it's kind of bad when you're bribing your kids. I mean--

Ira Glass

See I disagree with you. I think that if you're getting people to do the right thing for the right reasons, it's always best. But if that fails, getting them to do the right thing for the wrong reasons-- that's life. Sometimes that's the way it's got to go.

Colin Dunn

So you think that sometimes you just got to do the wrong thing, to get him to go and do the right thing overall?

Ira Glass

I don't think it's the wrong thing to offer you the trip as a present.

Colin Dunn

A present? It's now a present?

Ira Glass

Well what would you do? What should he have done?

Colin Dunn

For me, I would have said, then don't go to school.

Ira Glass

See but, he wanted you to go to school. Like, he--

Colin Dunn

And I think I would have, actually. If he had let me stay home from school maybe a week? And I would just, I mean-- I couldn't have done it. I don't think I could have stayed home from school for the rest of the year.

Ira Glass

Why?

Colin Dunn

It's kind of like, if you ever have been homesick, you know. You think it's going to be so great. But then after the first couple days, it's like, oh, I just want to get back to school.

Ira Glass

Because you felt like probably you would have been bored, you would have wanted to see your friends, it would just feel weird.

Colin Dunn

Right. It would. I know the days that I stayed home it felt weird. I mean, I couldn't answer the phone. I couldn't be seen. I felt like I was hiding. I mean I was hiding. It felt-- it just didn't feel right.

Ira Glass

Wow. Did you realize this at the time, or did you only realize it in retrospect?

Colin Dunn

I realized it at the time. I thought that if my dad had let me stay home, I would've stayed home for probably only a week at the very most. And I would have gone back to school. It's kind of like, if you gave me that much control, then I might be less rebellious.

Ira Glass

Colin Dunn and his father Corey, in Oregon.

Act Two. Exodus Of One.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Exodus of One.

There are over 5,000 children each year who get caught at the borders or at the airport, trying to come into this country without a parent or a legal guardian. No legal papers. The law is clear-cut to what to do about them, but the situation often is not so clear-cut. They're taken to residential facilities. One is in Chicago, on a neighborhood street on the north side.

It's innocuous looking. A two story, white brick building, bounded by an iron wrought fence, called the International Children's Center. It's run by a nonprofit agency under contract with the US government, and houses up to 70 children at a time, most of them teenagers, from China, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere. The average stay is two to three months.

During that time, the children don't know what's going to happen to them. If they're going to be allowed to stay in the United States, or they're going to be sent back. Alex Kotlowitz has this story, about one of the memorable and difficult cases that they faced in the last few years.

Alex Kotlowitz

On the afternoon of December 14, 1999, at Chicago's O'Hare airport, immigration officials pulled aside a three year old girl named Georgia Norman. She had arrived at O'Hare with a woman from Milwaukee, and customs officials discovered that Georgia's visa had been forged.

Little was known about the girl other than her name, and that she was from Jamaica. Given her age, she couldn't tell the officials very much. And the woman from Milwaukee was vague about her relationship with the girl. So the INS, concerned that the woman might be smuggling the girl to sell her as part of a child trafficking operation, took her into protective custody and brought her to the International Children's Center.

Hugo Ruiz

She was not an obedient child when we first made contact with her.

Alex Kotlowitz

This is Hugo Ruiz, the center's director. For the first few weeks, Georgia threw tantrums when she didn't get her way, biting and spitting at those who tried to comfort her. She had nightmares. In the morning she'd awake disoriented, asking for her family. She refused to eat her meals. The staff at the center had such trouble with Georgia, that Hugo had to step in.

Hugo Ruiz

I took Georgia to bed. And I was talking to her, and laying her down in bed, and she lifted up her leg and kicked down as I was holding her. And she dislocated my thumb. I actually tried to grab my thumb and put it back into place, and I did, but Georgia got scared. Because she saw that she had hurt me. And she started crying. And I hugged her. And we sang some songs, and I read her a couple of stories. And she fell asleep. And I went and got an ice bag. So that was my real introduction to Georgia early on in the program.

Alex Kotlowitz

Hugo, who is 54, is even keeled and patient. An immigrant himself, from Peru, on some level he identified with the confusion and uncertainty the children at the center felt. Also he had raised two daughters of his own. He continued to read to Georgia at night, and let her tag along with him to meetings downtown.

Soon, the crying and the fits stopped. Georgia began to feel at home. She had the run of the place. She was a beautiful child, with a smile Hugo said, that could put anyone under her power. And because she was so much younger than most of the children at the center, she was doted on. Especially by some of the older girls, many of whom had left younger siblings behind.

Sagal

I miss my family, and I miss my little brothers. And I wanted to be close to her. Because it was a comfort for me, as well as for her. And we were very close. We'd take a lot of pictures together.

Alex Kotlowitz

Sagal [? Abdi, ?] who was 17 at the time, was from Somalia. Like some of the other kids here, she was running from horrific memories. In her case, the brutality of her country's civil wars, which had claimed the life of her father.

Many other kids, especially the Chinese, are sent here by their parents, often with the aid of smugglers, in the hope that they'll find work and be able to send money home. Though the kids don't know the particulars of each other's stories, they feel connected by their common experiences. Sagal became Georgia's roommate, and they became like sisters.

One day, Sagal learned that her effort to gain political asylum had run into some problems.

Sagal

So I was very upset. And I was sitting in my room, and she came in. And she started dancing. And she stole one of my make-up and put it on. And she put all over her face, and she was, just so cute. And I just look at her, and I started laughing. And I thought about it, and I say, this little kid, she's away from her family, she's having a good time. And just, you know, playing around. Me, I'm older than her. I shouldn't sit and cry. So we just went to the hallway and joined the other kids.

Alex Kotlowitz

Georgia seemed to know that since she was so much younger than everyone else, she could usually get her way. Either through petty stubbornness, or through charm. I was visiting the center around that time, and I remember how the staff would break program rules for her. They snuck her extra candy. They brought her Barbie dolls, which she coveted. They hired a clown for her birthday. The older girls like Sagal used their allowances to buy her presents. And they would take turns braiding her hair. They taught her phrases in Spanish and Chinese.

When the children posed for photographs, Georgia, like a little Zelig, would dance her way into these pictures. At the center she learned to ride a bike. She rode her first elevator. She learned to swim at the nearby YMCA. Meanwhile, Hugo tried to figure out her future. Which first meant figuring out her past. In the afternoons, Hugo invited Georgia to come visit him at his first floor office.

Hugo Ruiz

And I remember sitting in my desk, and she was not quite awake yet after her nap. And she'd come in, and kind of poke her head in the door. And she just would show me her smile, and then go back outside. And I said, come on in Georgia. I would show her pictures of Jamaica. And she'd say, oh, that looks like where I used to live.

Alex Kotlowitz

Even after three months at the center, no one knew much about Georgia. Where she was from in Jamaica, who her parents were, how she ended up in this country with this woman from Milwaukee. She was a three year old girl without a history. No one knew what to do with her. Three months turned into four, and eventually into six.

Through all of this, the only absolute that Hugo knew, was that if Georgia stayed at the center, she'd be OK. But he knew she couldn't remain there indefinitely.

Hugo Ruiz

There were many takers in the program that wanted to take care of Georgia for the rest of her life.

Alex Kotlowitz

Including yourself?

Hugo Ruiz

I, unfortunately, I was probably the first one in line. I think I had been a father to her fairly easily.

News Reporter

Why has the US government kept this three year old in detention for six months? Eye on America investigates.

Alex Kotlowitz

In the wake of Elian Gonzales, Georgia's story made national news. And the outrage was that a three year old girl had been in custody for so long. TV crews parked outside the center. Local congressmen, along with Jesse Jackson, demanded a meeting with Georgia to make sure she was OK. Which of course she was. They wanted something done for this three year old girl. But there really weren't any clear options.

Then a reporter from Milwaukee located Georgia's mother near Runaway Bay, a resort town on Jamaica's north coast. It appeared that Georgia's mother had willingly given Georgia to the Milwaukee woman, in the hope that she might have a better life in America. Georgia's mother also made it clear to authorities that she wanted Georgia back home. So a decision was made to reunite Georgia with her mother.

And while that seemed like the obvious choice, it worried those who had taken care of her. What does it mean to send a child back to a parent who was willing to give her away? This question weighed heavily on Hugo.

Hugo Ruiz

When it came time to go back to Jamaica, I was the one that went back with her. And that was a tough trip. It was a very difficult trip. Every child deserves to be with their parent. In the case of Georgia, given the background of what happened, my fear would be that Georgia would be put through another episode, much like first one.

Alex Kotlowitz

Georgia left the center in June of 2000, just two weeks after she'd turned four. Hugo woke her early for a 6:00 AM flight. She wore her favorite outfit, a blouse with umbrellas, blue jeans, and tennis shoes with blinking lights. Hugo tried to prepare Georgia for the trip, letting her know that he was taking her to her mother.

But it soon became apparent that Georgia thought this was simply a visit. And that she'd return to Chicago with Hugo. When they arrived at the airport in Kingston, they were greeted by a representative from the Jamaican government.

Hugo Ruiz

I introduced her to the gentleman that came in from the Jamaican Child and Welfare Services, and said, this is the guy that's going to take you back to your mom. And then she asked me the real tough question, that I can still remember her little face, and she had all her favorite toys. And she went back with lots of bags and luggage. And she was holding her favorite doll, and she said, "You're coming with me?" And I had to tell her that I wasn't. Tough. Tough to see a child that trusts you and cares about you. You sort of feel like you're in them now.

(PHONE BEEPS, RINGING)

Alex Kotlowitz

This past May, Hugo began to look for Georgia. She would be nearly eight years old.

Hugo Ruiz

I'm looking for Georgia Norman. Do you know a young girl by the name of Georgia Norman? Well, I'm calling from the United States. I'm trying to find a friend of mine that I met a long time ago. And I'm just trying to find out where she's at.

Alex Kotlowitz

In those intervening four years, Hugo hadn't stopped worrying about Georgia. He wondered what kind of life she had in Jamaica, if in fact she was still there. Maybe her mother had given her away again. In the main hallway of the center, he had hung a photo of Georgia on roller skates, taken just before she left the center, on her birthday. And he held on to the two American Airline ticket stubs that he used to fly Georgia back home. They remained in his wallet for four years.

Hugo Ruiz

Well I want to find Georgia. I want to know what happened. I want to find out what is that has gone on in her life. One of the things that I told Georgia when we parted in Kingston was that I would see her soon. And it's been a while, and I want to be able to keep my word.

Alex Kotlowitz

Over the past few years, Hugo had talked to me about going down to Jamaica to find Georgia. He had never done anything like this with any other children from the center. This past spring, I suggested we finally make the trip.

Truth was, we weren't even certain we'd be able to find her. We pulled an old phone number from her lawyer's documents. We tried calling Jamaicans with the same last name. But nothing. Then shortly before we were going to depart, I found Sheila Ramos, the Milwaukee woman who had brought Georgia into this country with a forged visa.

Remember, officials initially believed that she might be trafficking in children, planning to sell Georgia. That turned out not to be the case. But given those early suspicions, I was surprised that she so readily agreed to talk to me. I would have thought she'd want to put the whole episode behind her. I drove to her home in Milwaukee, not sure what to expect.

Sheila Ramos

I stop at custom, and they want to see her birth certificate. And they say, who is she? That's when I say, that's the little girl that's coming to live with me. And then that's when they say, hold up. I didn't think I did nothing wrong.

Alex Kotlowitz

When Sheila Ramos tells the story of her decision to take Georgia back to the US with her, it seems surprisingly innocent. And at the same time, strangely spur of the moment. Sheila's 50 and married, works with inner city youth, and has two grown children of her own. Once a year Sheila would bring a group of Milwaukee teenagers to Jamaica, and on one visit, she met Georgia and her mother, Margaret Francis.

Margaret would bring Georgia by the hotel so she could swim in its pool. Margaret and Sheila became friendly and stayed in touch. When Sheila returned the next year, the idea of her taking Georgia back to the US came up.

Sheila Ramos

And she came over, she said, it would be real nice if she can have a nice family to go home to. And I say well, I mean she can easily come and visit if she like. And then, she said, Sheila, that'd be real good, you know. She said you can be the godmother, or I could be her legal guardian, or something like that. And when I came back over to Jamaica, like I said two years later, she said well we're going to go to court.

Alex Kotlowitz

It all seems almost, casual's not the right word, but kind of matter of fact. I mean that you don't say to her, well why would you want to give her up. It's, you--

Sheila Ramos

And it could be because it's like, because I see the poverty there. So, to me, when she said because she would have a better life with you. I didn't ask questions. I said, well, yeah she will have a better life with me. Because you can see the child. You know, she was not dirty, but don't have nice clothes. I just looked at her and said OK.

Alex Kotlowitz

And that was that. It didn't even occur to Sheila that she'd need anything more than legal guardianship to bring Georgia into the US. Her husband Carlos though, had reservations. And when he met Margaret, he wasn't reassured.

Carlos Ramos

There wasn't no curiosity coming out of her. And I said, ask me something. You know, no curiosity. No, how do you guys live, how are you going to do this. No questions was come out of her there. That puzzled me and worried me a little bit. I said, come on, man. Act like a, act like you're sad, you know. You're giving up your child, you know. But I didn't sense that, not once. Never once did she change her mind.

Alex Kotlowitz

In the end Carlos gave in, because Sheila wanted it so much.

Sheila Ramos

So it would be a real thrill for me, because I have two boys. And I always wanted a daughter. I would've probably spoiled her to death. She'd probably be in probably everything-- karate, ballet, model. She'd probably be in everything.

Alex Kotlowitz

After spending an afternoon with Sheila, and meeting the people around her, I was convinced that her intentions were good. She runs a small youth center, and not long ago took in a 17 year old neighborhood girl who'd been abandoned by her family. The girl calls Sheila mom.

But here's the last thing I expected to hear. Four years after trying to bring Georgia into this country, she's now trying again. She's attempting to formally adopt her. And though her first effort was denied, she is now appealing the decision. She had stayed in close touch with Margaret. There had been regular visits, and they speak every week. And so Sheila was also able to solve the mystery of how to find Georgia. She gave me Margaret's phone number, and Hugo called to arrange a visit.

As we headed down to Jamaica, we worried about what kind of situation we'd find Georgia in. Whether she was still being cared for, what could be going on that her mother was still trying so hard to give her away. In a sense, things had come full circle. Four years ago, Georgia must have felt abandoned. First by her mother, then by Sheila, and finally by Hugo. And now four years later, Georgia was back with her mother, and faced being sent away yet again. It's exactly what Hugo had feared.

Ira Glass

Coming up, Alex and Hugo in Jamaica. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Alex Kotlowitz's story continues, tracking down a little girl after four years.

Alex Kotlowitz

We arrived in Runaway Bay, Jamaica, on Memorial Day weekend. Margaret and Georgia had agreed to meet us at the hotel that first evening. And so we waited for them near the front door, watching a game of netball on the lobby's television. They soon arrived. They were holding hands. Georgia was four years older, nearly eight now, but she looked unmistakably like the young girl I'd met in Chicago. She wore her hair in braids, two to the side like pigtails, and a double braid down her back. Hugo approached Georgia.

Hugo Ruiz

How are you? How are you?

Alex Kotlowitz

She didn't recognize him, and hid behind her mother, clutching one of her legs.

Hugo Ruiz

You remember me? Do you? I know I lost a little bit of hair.

Alex Kotlowitz

Both Georgia and her mother had dressed up for the occasion. Margaret, a sturdily built woman with a shortly cropped afro, wore a white linen shorts suit. Georgia wore a neatly ironed white button down blouse, and a short blue denim skirt. We went and sat by the pool and Georgia, understandably wary of the microphone, kept her distance. Hugo sat in a chair, and Georgia stood a few feet away.

Hugo Ruiz

So, how are you honey? You look so cute. You've grown quite a bit. You were only this size when I brought you. Do you remember when I brought you here? Do you?

Georgia

Yes.

Hugo Ruiz

It's kind of like I thought. She would probably be shy and not remember, and that it would take a while to warm up. And, but, I think after a little bit of talking with her, she started to make the connection.

Alex Kotlowitz

We had brought along photographs of two of the teenagers who had been particularly close to Georgia in Chicago.

Hugo Ruiz

Who's this?

Georgia

Um, [INAUDIBLE].

Hugo Ruiz

[? Bi-wi ?], this is [? Bi-wi. ?]

Alex Kotlowitz

One was of [? Bi-wi ?] Lin, a girl from China. And the other was a photograph taken at the center of Sagal and Georgia.

Hugo Ruiz

Uh-oh, who's that?

Georgia

Me.

Hugo Ruiz

And Sagal. Remember Sagal?

Georgia

Yeah.

Alex Kotlowitz

In the photos, Sagal is kneeling, her cheek pressed up against Georgia's. Both are smiling, their arms slung around each other.

Hugo Ruiz

And see this one, she hasn't seen this one. That's Sagal. She's from Somalia.

Margaret

OK.

Hugo Ruiz

She used to really take care of her a lot.

Alex Kotlowitz

Margaret smiled timidly. While she's reserved, almost shy, it was clear she appreciated hearing of Georgia's time in Chicago. Though she never asked Hugo any questions about her life there. I remembered Sheila's husband, Carlos, telling me how incurious she was. Margaret told Hugo about a visit she and Georgia took to Bob Marley's grave site. Georgia walked over from the pool at that point.

Georgia

I know what you're talking about. About Bob Marley. I know a lot about him. I know his [? story ?], his temper, his house. And I know when he was born and I know when he died.

Hugo Ruiz

When did he die?

Georgia

1981.

Hugo Ruiz

Oh, when was he born?

Georgia

1945.

Hugo Ruiz

Ah ha.

Alex Kotlowitz

Georgia was warming up to Hugo. They traded facts about Bob Marley for a while. And then her attention drifted toward the pool. She waded in, and Hugo encouraged her to go deeper. She looked back at her mom, like any good kid would, for permission.

Hugo Ruiz

You've done a real good job with her. She just seems like a real sweet girl, and all that she has done, is she's grown up.

Alex Kotlowitz

At the outdoor restaurant Margaret chose for dinner, a neighborhood hangout, music blared through refrigerator-sized speakers stacked one on top of the other. It was difficult to have a conversation. It was uncomfortable sitting around this picnic table, barely able to exchange a word.

But it was easy to see that Margaret adored Georgia, and that Georgia adored her mom. They shared a plate of chicken. And at one point, Georgia snuggled up against her mother, and together they sang along with the music. Margaret and Hugo tried over the music to talk about the adoption. But Georgia soon ran out of food.

Hugo Ruiz

You want more jerk chicken? You do? Come on, let's go get some. Come on Georgia, help me.

Alex Kotlowitz

They strolled to the counter.

Hugo Ruiz

I asked Georgia, I said, come on, give me your hand. I haven't held your hand for such a long time. And she says, but they're so greasy. And I said it doesn't matter, here, come on, give me your hand. So she gave me her hand and we went up and walked up the steps and put the order in. And I asked her, I said, so Georgia, what do you want to do? She said, well, I want to go to Chicago.

That sort of surprised me. It surprised me that she would say that. I said why, she says, because I like it there. And I just wonder what it is that she liked about Chicago. Or I wonder if, as some of the other children sometimes are, if she was coached to say that.

Alex Kotlowitz

Georgia's answer unnerved Hugo. It wasn't what he had expected. Especially after only a couple of hours together. Hugo and I assumed that Georgia was mimicking what her mother clearly wanted for her. As close as she and Georgia seemed, she was still planning to send her to live with Sheila in America. Back at the hotel, Hugo and I talked about the evening.

Hugo Ruiz

I'm happy that she is the way she is. She's clearly attached to her mom. She seems like a very normal kid.

Alex Kotlowitz

It must be somewhat of a relief. Because I know you were anxious, and I know I was anxious, and I didn't have anywhere near as much at stake as you did about what we were going to find.

Hugo Ruiz

It really is a relief. I know her recollections are not as vivid as I had hoped. But you know, that's also good. It's also good that she's able to go ahead, and move from that to bond with her mom the way she did. I still think it would be very difficult for her to leave her mom.

Alex Kotlowitz

The next morning, Georgia, her mother, and her mother's friend Maury, picked us up at the hotel to visit their home. We wound our way along the serpentine roads of Jamaica's interior. It took half an hour to drive the eight miles, past groves of fruit trees, around hairpin turns. Through the center of Brown's Town, a bustling place where men were drinking beer and playing dominoes on the sidewalk. Margaret's house is rather remote, on the far outskirts of the town. We turned on to a rutted dirt road, and then on to another dirt road, which was a slushy brown from yesterday's rains.

We finally pulled up alongside a narrow concrete structure, which had been built into a steep hill. Margaret's home had belonged to her uncle, who had recently died. In places, the concrete is chipped away. Most of the window panes are missing or broken. There's no plumbing. Margaret showed us around.

Margaret

You see right now, in the next part there, the flooring needs to fix.

Hugo Ruiz

I see you put a patch there, huh?

Margaret

Yeah.

Alex Kotlowitz

Along one side of the house, Margaret had hung a shower curtain. On a table sat a yellow plastic tub.

Hugo Ruiz

So you fill up something, and then--

Margaret

Yeah.

Hugo Ruiz

OK, I see. So you've got to get this full and then you basically, you just kind of, OK. That works.

Margaret

That's why I really want a better life for Georgia, you understand?

Hugo Ruiz

I see.

Margaret

Good.

Alex Kotlowitz

We quickly realized that her mission for the day was to convince us how poor she was. In order for the adoption with Sheila to go through, one of the things that Margaret has to prove is that she's not able to adequately care for Georgia. She knew Hugo had an important job working with immigrant children. And so she hoped he'd have some influence.

With that in mind, Margaret showed us the front room where she and Georgia shared a bed. She pointed out two sheets of plywood, which covered a hole in the floor. She told us that her grown nephew, grown niece, and her niece's two year old son, stayed in two small rooms off to the side.

She took us into the kitchen, which is barely large enough for their two appliances, a gas stove and a rather small refrigerator. Which is empty, except for a pitcher of water and a brown bag of fruit. There are no sinks or cabinets. When I asked about her bathroom, she nodded to their pit toilet, which sits on a ridge a short walk from the house.

Margaret marched us from room to room with the indifference of a tired museum guide. It was clear that if she hadn't thought it might help Georgia's chances to go to the US, she wouldn't have had us there at all. For our part, it felt voyeuristic. It was, to be honest, terribly awkward. Hugo tried to put everyone at ease. At the back of the house, we walked over to a stone cistern, which collects their drinking water off the house's tin roof.

Hugo Ruiz

Swimming pool?

Margaret

[LAUGHTER] Yeah.

Hugo Ruiz

How full does it get? Does it get all the way to the top sometimes, or not?

Margaret

Yeah. When the rain fall, all it fill up. And then it flow over. There's a lot of fish inside there now. So the fish will die once the fish are in there.

Hugo Ruiz

There are fish in your water here? How do they get them in?

Margaret

My nephew bring them and put them in there.

Alex Kotlowitz

Her nephew had dumped some river perch into the drinking water, which was murky, and which she usually boils before drinking. Hugo and Georgia wandered off to the side of the house.

Hugo Ruiz

Georgia. You remember how I used to play, over there in Chicago, with [? Bi-wi ?] and Sagal? Sit down. Like this. The hands, patty cake.

Alex Kotlowitz

Hugo sat down with Georgia to re-aquaint her with the game of patty cake.

Hugo Ruiz

Then one like this. Back again. Then with this one, no, the other side. And then again, then down. Then up. Mm-mm-mm.

Alex Kotlowitz

As they played, Georgia very quietly brought up Chicago, as she did on the first night. She asked Hugo, if she were to come to America, and the same thing happened as last time, she gets stopped by immigration, would she end up with him?

Georgia

If I go back, and I don't have my visa, how would I [? reach ?] where you are?

Hugo Ruiz

Maybe, if they catch you, if they catch you. If they don't catch you, then you go with your, what's her name?

Georgia

Sheila.

Hugo Ruiz

Sheila. Where do you want to go, with Sheila, or with us?

Georgia

With you.

Alex Kotlowitz

Hugo asked her why she wanted to return to Chicago. Because, she said, I want to see Sagal and [? Bi-wi. ?] Meanwhile, Margaret and I were talking on the front porch. We leaned on the railing overlooking the tropical bush and the dirt road. I asked Margaret why she was so intent on giving Georgia to Sheila.

Margaret

I really don't want to see her on the island. Because of violence, and all those things. You have a lot like those cool little boys, and don't go to school, and just, you know.

Alex Kotlowitz

She told me that the local boys, many of whom don't go to school, harass Georgia, often grabbing her by the hand. Margaret also said that she worked as a domestic. But only part-time, because she wanted to be at home each day when George arrived from school.

Alex Kotlowitz

So you're worried that she's-- somebody might take advantage of her?

Margaret

Right.

Alex Kotlowitz

Has that happened at all, have people tried to do that?

Margaret

Like one evening she come from school, and she's telling me that, mommy you know what the guy on the bus tell me? I said what. He's giving me three more here. I said what? Said he giving me three more here. Because like, she's eight now, innocent. So he giving her three more years.

Alex Kotlowitz

Three more years?

Margaret

Right.

Alex Kotlowitz

Three more years. The guy on the bus meant that's when Georgia will be old enough to be a mother. Margaret, who's now 39, had her first child at 21. And eventually had six children by four different men. Georgia is her youngest. None of the men stuck around, including Georgia's father, who has disappeared from her life.

When Margaret's oldest turned 16, she informed Margaret that she was pregnant. When Margaret heard that, she cried.

Margaret

So, I just don't want to see that happen to Georgia, I just want her to grow up. And have things, have what she can have, innocence. Like go to school and take her education. Pass her subject and get a nice job before she go on to wherever she go, have kids. Cannot walk in my footstep.

Alex Kotlowitz

She can't walk in my footsteps, Margaret says. Not I hope she doesn't, she can't. Margaret was adamant about that.

Alex Kotlowitz

Do you ever think, how am I going to be here without my daughter?

Margaret

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]. I always survived. I just want the best for her.

Alex Kotlowitz

But it's got to be hard for you. I can tell how close you are with Georgia.

Margaret

Yeah but, the reason why is because I don't have anybody to help me. So I want to do something for myself, because I don't want to lean on anyone for saying, give me this and give me that, now give me this. I want to have something for myself, actually something for myself too. I'm getting old. I'm 39 years old. I want to have something for myself, you know friend?

Alex Kotlowitz

But it's got to be so hard as a mother to let go.

Margaret didn't answer. She swatted at the mosquitoes. She stared at the bush on the other side of the road. I wondered if, given her reality, she had by necessity stopped asking herself these questions. All I could think to say to break the long silence was--

Alex Kotlowitz

It's quite humid, huh?

As we spent time in Jamaica, it became clear that Georgia's situation was not at all extraordinary. Virtually everyone we met had a similar story to tell. During the drive from Kingston to Runaway Bay, we had told our driver, [? Ollie Forester, ?] about Georgia. And he said that just a few days earlier, a complete stranger had left a five year old boy carrying a backpack full of clothes at the gate to his father's house.

Driver

They just left one at the gate. They just left him at the gate, and just leave him like that. His mother just come, and leave him like that.

Alex Kotlowitz

So your father's taking care of a child now?

Driver

Yes, right now. Yeah. And it's not the first time.

Alex Kotlowitz

[? Ollie's ?] father, a farmer in his 70s, plans to raise this child. Maybe even legally adopt him, if he can find the mother. Then when we visited the Sunflower Hotel, where Margaret and Sheila first met, we encounter the hotel's owner, Vana Taylor. She told us this story of how she came to take in a child seven years ago. The child is now eleven. Vana was at the beach early one morning and saw a mother with her daughter. It was a school day.

Vana Taylor

And I said, why is the child not at school? Because I'm always worried about that. And then the mother said, I have no clothes, I have no food, I have nothing to send the child to school. So I said to her, you know, why don't you give me the child, or something like that. And then she said, fine, you know. She said to the child, do you want to go live with Ms. Taylor, and the child said, yes. That was it.

Alex Kotlowitz

That matter of fact.

Vana Taylor

That matter of fact. And by the time I got home, she was here. It's very easy, it's much easier than having one, isn't it? [LAUGHTER]

Claudette Pious

There's a saying in Jamaica that once the children [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE} kitten. Meaning that just like a cat, people give away their children.

Alex Kotlowitz

This is Claudette Pious who works with children in Spanish Town, near Kingston. She says it's actually rare for Jamaican children to be sent to America. Usually it's the parents who go, leaving behind their children with family, friends, or sometimes on their own. It's become so common that there's a name for the kids left behind, barrel children. Because they receive barrels of goods from their parents, mostly name-brand shoes and clothes.

Claudette herself was abandoned. Her mother emigrated to Canada in search of work, and left Claudette behind with an aunt. Claudette told me she never forgave her mother.

Claudette Pious

I got many letters. I still have some. And I can remember her sending me a tape recorder. And saying, I should talk on the tape recorder and send the tapes to her. I'd just sit by myself, and talk to this tape recorder. Sometimes I'd quarrel with her. Sometimes I'd tell her all the things happening. Sometimes it was almost like a diary. If it was a good day, I would tell her. Some bad days, I would tell her. But interestingly, I didn't send the tapes.

Alex Kotlowitz

In her work with children today, Claudette won't take any in. She won't build a shelter. She feels it's too important that they stay with their own families. Her own mother eventually returned to Jamaica when Claudette was an adult.

Claudette Pious

I remember saying to her, that whatever I become in life have nothing to do with you.

Alex Kotlowitz

That's what you said to your mother?

Claudette Pious

And she was very upset. And she said, I was very ungrateful because she supported me. She send the money. And I said, it's not about the money. It's about that connection, not being there for me when I wanted to cry, when I wanted to laugh, when I wanted to-- just to hold you, and I wanted you to be close.

Alex Kotlowitz

Hugo believes what Claudette does, that if at all possible kids should stay with their parents. And like Claudette, he had had his own experience. Growing up in Peru, his family at one point fell on hard times. His mother had the chance to give him up. An uncle offered to raise him. But she held on to Hugo. It was more important to her, poor or not, that her son be with his mom.

But in the nine years Hugo has been at the children's center, he's begun to understand why parents might let go of their children. He learned it first through the children from India, whose parents had been conned by smugglers into thinking they were sending their children to America to attend great schools and to live with well to-do families. When in fact, the smugglers planned to put them to work at menial jobs. Hugo would occasionally talk by phone with these parents. And the first thing they'd ask about were the schools their children presumably attended.

Hugo Ruiz

I used to be fairly judgemental as far as that went. There's a lot of people that do not understand. But I understand today why they separate from their children. And I don't think they love them any less than we love our children. I just think that they're so desperate that they don't have any other options. And I understand that piece a lot better today.

Alex Kotlowitz

The interesting thing that perplexes me, I mean I think I can understand the first time around. Georgia's really young, she's three years old, and Margaret's living a really difficult life. A woman comes along who she clearly on some level admires, maybe doesn't know well, and offers to take Georgia. And Margaret goes along with it. And then everything goes awry, and she gets her kid back. And I would think that would be the most glorious moment in some ways. You know, her--

Hugo Ruiz

And she doesn't come across that way.

Alex Kotlowitz

Yeah, and that she doesn't want-- she's still willing. Here we are four years later, and she's still willing and ready to give Georgia up.

Hugo Ruiz

I think of what goes through Georgia's head right now. And I'm sure she has questions as well. That she's not able to express to her mom, or maybe to anyone. Not yet anyway. Later on, I'm sure that she'll want some answers.

Alex Kotlowitz

What kind of questions?

Hugo Ruiz

You know, why am I being sent here again? I'm here with my mom. And at this age, it's going to be a fairly difficult separation, legal or not. It's going to be a difficult situation. But I don't know that Georgia will ever forget at this age. Because Georgia is now in what I consider to be a stable environment. And this is where she should remain.

Georgia

[SINGING] Don't worry about a thing. 'Cause every little thing is going to be all right. Tell you don't worry about a thing.

Alex Kotlowitz

That night at the hotel bar, Georgia sang along to the piano player.

Georgia

[SINGING] Rising sun in the morning, smile with the rising sun. Three little birds--

Alex Kotlowitz

Margaret looked on, beaming. It was the one time she seemed completely unburdened. And it was the same with Georgia, as well. Ironically, one of the reason she's doing so well, is Sheila. Who sends $50 to $100 every couple of weeks. She's also paying for Georgia's private school education.

Georgia

[SINGING] Singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true. This is our message to you.

Alex Kotlowitz

We left the next day after stopping by to bring Georgia presents and a cake to celebrate her eighth birthday. As she waits for adults in two countries to figure out her fate, I suppose a hopeful thing is that she's been in the same place before, and came out of it OK. Or so it seemed. What has to be toughest on Georgia though, are all the unknowns. Hugo once told me that the longer he works with children like Georgia, it becomes more complicated, not less. So many of these children, they don't seem to fully belong anywhere.

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz. His most recent book is Never a City So Real. Four years ago when Georgia came to the United States, about 5,000 minors were stopped at US borders and airports. This year, 6,300 are expected. The number of residential centers for them, like the one Hugo runs, has jumped from eight to twenty, in just four years.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program's produced today by Diane Cook and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachman and Will [? Reichel ?]. It is Will's last show. He's performed bravely and capably in the face of great adversity, and we are sorry to see him go.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for free. Or you know you can download audio of our show at audible.com/thisamericanlife. Where they have public radio programs, best selling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. In the crowded gym locker room, I can report to you, he just repeats this mantra over and over--

Colin Dunn

"Can't throw in the towel. Can't throw in the towel."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.