continued Acosta estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the kids in San Diego's system have some family involvement in their rehabilitation. Félix wishes she could say the same. Asked if most kids receive family visits, she looks crestfallen. "No. A huge percentage never receive visitors. For example, last Sunday, out of more than 250 sentenced inmates -- the presentenced ones have visitors on Saturday -- only 83 had visitors." That's 33 percent.
Asked to explain the low visitor rate, Félix answers, "One reason is the family is separated and dysfunctional. Another is that the family is just fed up with the kid constantly being here, and they abandon the child. And an unfortunate thing that happens is the family sometimes loses their sense of obligation for the child once the child is in here. They feel the state is taking care of them now. 'They're feeding them, clothing them, educating them now. Our job is done.' "
Roberto is a 20-year-old inmate at the consejo facility who is serving time for a homicide he committed as a teenager. (I wasn't allowed to ask him for any details about the incident. "We want to look forward," Félix explained.) Asked if he receives visitors, the fair-skinned, light-eyed young man, who had been frowning nervously, smiled widely. "Yes, gracias a Dios. I'm fortunate that my family comes to visit me every Sunday, and I really look forward to it every week.
"At first," Roberto recalls, "when my parents came, we didn't have anything to say to each other, particularly my dad and I. It was just, 'Órale... Órale...' And then we would sit there trying to think of things to talk about. It was very uncomfortable. But then we started doing family therapy, all of us together. For the first time in my whole life, I saw my dad cry and I heard him tell me he loves me. Now we've gotten to know each other, and I love it when they visit."
Much as he loves his visits with his family, Roberto admits to feeling a little bit guilty when he returns to the dormitory or mess hall. "I always feel great after seeing my family every Sunday," he explains, "and I want to tell all of my friends all about it. They listen, and they're happy for me. But so many of them never receive visitors, and I can see they're sad about it. Then I feel bad for being so happy."
Félix says not only do some families not visit, they refuse to accept the child back when his term is up. "We try to tell them about the program the child has completed," she says, "but they don't want to know anything about it. They're tired of the whole situation. So we start looking for other relatives. We have agreements with institutions all around the country to help us find family members, because the majority of the kids from here, even when they were born and raised here, the majority have relatives in other states in Mexico. So we contact these relatives in other states, and sometimes they take the child under their protection."
When inmates are released from the Consejo Tutelar para Menores Infractores, they carry no criminal records with them -- because only adults can commit crimes in Mexico. And about 30 percent, Félix estimates, have no home to go to. In that case, if the inmates are over 18, Félix and her associates steer them toward the army. "We know that the discipline of the army will be familiar and welcome to them after living here," she says. If they're under 18, the consejo turns them over to Mexico's social security agency, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia.
"Soon," Félix says, "we're going to release 50, and 10 of them have no home to go to. Those youths have worked hard and behaved well. We've seen the effort that they put into their programs. And even though they were misbehaving at their homes before they came here, they've made a big effort to get education and rehabilitate themselves while they were here. And then their families don't want them. That is very sad for them, and for us who see it."