HOUSTON (AP) — After her mother was gunned down on a quiet neighborhood street just a block from her elementary school, 7-year-old Sheyli Galvez was turned over to Child Protective Services while a state district judge determined her fate.
The process involved a six-month CPS investigation that included a home study in her native Honduras.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1A1H4mw ) reports CPS and the child's attorney had to prove to the judge that it is in the best interests of Sheyli, who was in Houston illegally, to be returned to her father in a Caribbean port town in the most violent-wracked region of Honduras, itself deemed the world's most dangerous country. The judge agreed, and this week Sheyli returned home.
"I'm just so happy to finally have my little girl with me," the father, Rolvin Galvez, said by phone from Honduras.
As more than 13,000 unaccompanied Honduran children have turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol officials this year, part of a wave of nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children who have flooded into Texas, Sheyli's case is unusual as CPS typically doesn't repatriate children who are here illegally, proving how U.S. laws can treat children in the same situations differently.
While the White House and Congress wrangle over how to deal with the influx of Central American children, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that about 60 percent might be eligible for humanitarian protection under international standards because of the levels of violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Obama has said he would like to deport the children quickly, but is hamstrung by a 2008 law designed to protect sex trafficking victims.
Meanwhile, Sheyli, a dark-haired little girl who enjoys wearing princess dresses and tiaras, was kept with a foster family for six months while CPS and consulate officials investigated whether to place her with her father in Honduras.
The complicated case began when Sheyli's mother, 24-year-old Yolibeth Perez, was shot dead at about 3 p.m. Jan. 22 as she was walking to pick Sheyli up from Emerson Elementary School in southwest Houston. Witnesses told police the man appeared suddenly, shooting Perez several times before running away.
Relatives in Houston say Perez came here illegally about a year ago from Puerto Cortes, a city on the northeast Honduran coast near Guatemala. They say she came to live with an aging aunt, but mostly kept to herself and didn't tell them why she had left Honduras other than to say she was applying for asylum.
But police said they initially received information that her then-husband in Honduras was in a drug cartel and that she'd fled the country for her safety. Police said Perez called them at 3 p.m. Dec. 12 from her apartment complex, saying someone had shot at her but that the shooter ran away. Police couldn't find any bullets.
Perez told relatives, including her daughter, that the shooter was a masked woman. Jose Torres, who is married to Perez's cousin and listed as an emergency contact, picked up Sheyli and tried to shield her from the taped-off murder scene as he drove her home.
It was no use. Sheyli saw the police cars and said, "That old woman has taken away my mom."
Once police discovered the cartel claims, CPS took Sheyli into their custody because there was concern about her safety, and relatives worried they might be targeted too, said CPS spokeswoman Estella Olguin. Sheyli was then placed with a foster family while CPS investigated whether she should be adopted or returned to her relatives here or in Honduras.
"If a child is already here, and there is allegation of abuse or concern about their safety, that becomes our jurisdiction regardless of immigration status," Olguin said. "It is up to us to make sure we do whatever is in the best interest for the safety of the child."
But Olguin said it is very rare for CPS to return a child who is here illegally to relatives in their native country. Returning a child to their native country involves the complex process of CPS simulating home studies and other measures to ensure a child's new home will be safe.
Meanwhile, Galvez, the father, had seen news reports about Perez's killing, and he contacted the Honduran Consulate to say he wanted his daughter back. In a telephone interview, the 25-year-old said he and Perez dated since they were young teens but that they had split up about two years ago. He denied he was in a cartel or any sort of gang.
But he said he was paralyzed in a shooting in January 2013 when he was playing soccer and "various people" fired guns, landing one bullet in his back. Puerto Cortes is about 34 miles from San Pedro Sula, the world's most dangerous city where about three people are killed every day, according to the United Nations.
From January through May, more than 2,200 unaccompanied children from the city have arrived in the U.S., many saying they are fleeing violence and forced recruitment into gangs. It is the Central American city sending the most children to the U.S., according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
The father said he supported Perez's decision to take Sheyli to Houston last year because he thought she would be better off. But then the mother was killed, and relatives were hesitant to take in Sheyli for fear they might be targeted like Perez.
Galvez said he didn't want Sheyli to go to a foster family because he would lose all contact with her.
"She's my daughter," he said.
Police have since determined Perez's killing was not gang- or cartel-related, and that the December shooting attempt was "fabricated, possibly to assist (Perez) in her asylum claim," said Jodi Silva, a Houston Police Department spokeswoman.
"We have no reason to believe that he contacted people over here, or that his supposed ties to drug activity had led to her death," she said.
Instead, their investigation revealed Perez's killing was related to a March 21 shooting in Sugar Land, she said.
In that slaying, two men walked into Global Casework Manufacturing Inc. on Industrial Boulevard just before 9 a.m., asking for 33-year-old Marlon Alexander Palencia, a Guatemalan. They exchanged words, and one man shot Palencia. Sugar Land police say Palencia had contacted Huver Oregon-Reyes' wife on Facebook. Oregon-Reyes, 31, is in jail with a murder charge, but the other man has left the country, police said. Police declined to comment on the link between Palencia and Perez, or what the motive was in her killing.
Despite the danger and poverty in Honduras, Olguin said that CPS caseworkers, Sheyli's appointed attorney, Dan Spjut, and Judge Glenn Devlin agreed she would be better off with her father, who cannot work but relies on his family's wood shop to survive.
To regain his daughter from CPS, the father had to take a paternity test, undergo a criminal background check, and was investigated by the Honduran Institute for Childhood and Family, said Yolanda Oliva, the Honduran Consulate in Houston.
She said her office is overwhelmed in trying to deal with all the Honduran children who are trying to return home.
"Most of the children are saying their parents are here, most of them are coming to look for their parents," Oliva said. "The difference is that Sheyli is going back to Honduras to be with her father. That's what she wanted."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com