SANTA CRUZ — “This isn’t just for Maya. This is for all the kids,” Claire Protti said to a group of about 50 people standing in a candle-lit ring around her on a chilly weeknight on Lighthouse Point.
The Pacific Collegiate School sophomore is one of a small group of primarily teenage girls organizing an awareness campaign about private companies that host reunification programs with claims of reconnecting children to their estranged parents after a divorce. The teens, largely utilizing social media blasts of a video apparently depicting a private transport company’s use of force to remove their classmate and her younger brother two weeks ago, has reached viewers around the globe, the young women said. While the video has since been removed by YouTube after a complaint, it has remained available on Instagram.
The recent incident emerged from years of custody disputes between their classmate’s parents, according to case court records. The case recently culminated in a Santa Cruz County Superior Court family law division order permitting the children’s removal to a four-day Los Angeles-based center, as well as setting the children’s full custody with their mother for at least 90 days, records show.
Marcela Garcia, the mother to one of the classmate effort’s organizers, briefly addressed the vigil’s participants on the night of Oct. 27. She credited her daughter and her daughter’s friends — children themselves, she said — for bringing awareness to reunification camps and the “war zone” kids of divorced parents can be caught up in, nationwide.
“You mean to tell me that the road to reunification begins with violence,” Garcia said to the group. “Whatever led to them being there with a court order is just noise. We are here to grow the movement, to raise awareness. No child should have to go through that ever again.”
A week after the girls’ Lighthouse Field vigil, Santa Cruz Mayor Sonja Brunner and Third District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty joined forces to publicly announce their plan to seek local legislation that would regulate such private companies’ actions when it comes to court-ordered child removals. Standing Thursday afternoon in front of the family home the children were removed from two weeks earlier, Coonerty characterized the video footage as showing “completely unacceptable” and “violent force” by the contractors he identified as being employed by Assisted Interventions Inc.
Investigating use-of-force policies
Coonerty, whose niece Claire Protti is involved in organizing the protest effort, stressed that “neither the city nor the county is involved in this or other custody disputes,” and that such events involve parents and are directed by judges relying on evidence and testimony. He added that he looked into the local case after hearing from both his family and from dozens of district community members seeking a response.
“We’re not here to pick a side in this or any other case,” Coonerty said. “We are here to talk about what we see are policy failures in the treatment of Maya and Sebastian. We have an obligation to speak for them and other kids who are potentially at risk.”
Coonerty compared the recent viral footage to what he said is a Santa Cruz County Child Protective Services policy barring physically touching a child. Instead, he said he watched a video appearing to depict a transportation company that “physically overtook the children, violently carrying them away, banging their heads against car doors and the ground and pulling the pants off a 15-year-old girl in the process.”
“It’s a best practice to prevent trauma,” Coonerty said of the hands-off policy. “We will be exploring an ordinance to hold private companies, like Assisted Interventions, to the same standard.”
Coonerty added that he hoped to see a use-of-force investigation into the recent intervention. He said he would be calling on state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom to license, regulate and potentially ban reunification camps, which remain unregulated, unlike the state’s child care and health care centers and schools. He said he was concerned particularly with reunification centers that are given full control over children sent to them. A state bill banning such camps died during the past legislative session, he said — a proposed law he hopes to see revived.
Brunner said she has become aware of other jurisdictions in the state that have established policies relating to situations similar to Santa Cruz’s. Enacting such changes locally would involve the cooperation of the city and county, the superior court’s law division, the family law bar and other interested stakeholders, she said.
“As a community, I just want to be sensitive to the fact that the children in the video and the family members have really had this tragic experience broadcast on social media,” Brunner said. “So, I really want to be respectful for not exacerbating the trauma the children have experienced any further.”
Santa Cruz police officers were on scene Oct. 20 when the children were taken into custody, responding after a call of a neighborhood disturbance. Deputy Chief Jon Bush said the department had received a heads-up from the court about the pending removal and that their officers met with the transportation company beforehand to vet their credentials. The court order, said Bush, offered no nuance for situations in which the children may not want to leave.
“We generally don’t get involved or will force anybody to go against their will,” Bush said. “But this was done by a third party and we actually had the court order that said they were allowed to and that it would be basically against the law for us to either intervene or to not assist.”
Young advocates shine public light
In addition to the Lighthouse Point vigil last week, the teen organizers went on to host a protest early Friday morning in front of the Watsonville courthouse, where family law cases are held.
“We should honestly be worrying about our chemistry test,” Claire said to the group gathered for the vigil, alluding to the next day’s missed classes.
She later told a reporter that “sitting in class can only teach you so much.”
“But, when your friend is in danger, that is when you need to act, no matter what,” Claire said.
After a lengthy custody dispute between the affected children’s parents, Judge Rebecca Connolly in October 2021 first awarded sole legal and physical custody to the children’s mother. Connolly, however, paused the ruling, according to court records, to allow for the children’s father to join the children for court-ordered “reunification therapy” with the children. In one of several orders laying out details of allowed parental and children interaction guidelines, the court included in a July 2021 order language that “No one shall try to or be expected to physically force a child to complete a visitation.”
Co-vigil and protest organizer Kiersten, 16, who asked not to have her last name shared, said the girls heard promises of similar vigils taking place last week across the country and even abroad, citing messages from Canada and the United Kingdom.
“Our audience is anybody who’s willing to listen. It’s to make people aware,” Kiersten said after the vigil. “It’s to kind of stop what’s happening — to kind of like, expose corruption and bring everyone home who needs to come home.”
Kiersten said she arrived at her friend’s home late into the encounter with the transporting staff and attempted to intervene. She described those on the scene as “so cold.” She said she felt traumatized from watching Maya being taken away against her will and calling out to Kiersten for help.
“I really, really tried to be there for her and I did as much as I could,” Kiersten said. “But, now we can do more, so we’re going to do as much as we can.”
The teens are sharing their messages through their @maya.and.sebastian Instagram account, located online at instagram.com/maya.and.sebastian.