Children ended up alone for hours

An illegal immigrant arrested on a traffic violation last month was forced to leave her three children on the shoulder of Interstate 85 in the middle of the night – where they were alone and stranded for eight hours.

An Alamance County sheriff's deputy pulled Maria Chavira Ventura over just before 2 a.m. on June 14, according to arrest records. He took her to jail for driving without a license and displaying a false license plate, and she was eventually put under a federal deportation order. He left her children, 14, 10 and 6, with a man they barely knew, a fellow church member who had been catching a ride with the family.

Lawyers with the N.C. Justice Center are investigating the incident. They say the man, fearing deportation if the officer returned, abandoned the children, leaving them to wait for their father to drive from Maryland.

The father, Antonio Perez, said he got a cell phone call from the sobbing children around 2 a.m. They had been headed from their home in Western North Carolina to visit him in Maryland. Perez, who doesn't have a license and got his uncle to drive him, arrived at 10:30 a.m. to find his children scared, exhausted, hungry, and distraught over the loss of their mother.

“They were left abandoned there in the middle of the street,” Perez said. “It was a horrible experience for them, just horrible.”

Perez, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, agreed to give only his middle and last names. His story was confirmed by Justice Center lawyers who interviewed Ventura in jail. The 14-year-old also told the same story in an interview with social workers in Maryland. The Justice Center provided a copy of that interview.

Officials at the Alamance County Sheriff's Department say they handled Ventura's arrest according to their policies. They say children are frequently left with neighbors or family friends, as long as parents approve. If there is no adult available, the department calls social workers, said spokesman Randy Jones.

“We make arrangements all the time, and we have to do it on a case-by-case basis,” Jones said. “We're not going to let something happen to a child.”

In this case, Jones said, the department has not received a complaint and was unaware until last week that the children ended up alone.

Jones said the man, who had no identification or driver's license, had a cell phone and told the officer that help was on the way. The mother spoke very little English, so the officer had the teenage daughter ask her handcuffed mother whether she approved of them staying with the man, Jones said.

“The girl said something to the mother in Spanish,” Jones said. “And the officer said the mother looked at him and nodded.”

However, both Ventura and her daughter say the officer never asked permission to leave the children with the man. Dan Rearick, a Justice Center lawyer, interviewed Ventura at the Alamance County Jail on July 9.

“She said very clearly that the officer never mentioned her children and she was never told anything about what would happen to them,” Rearick said.