Nine months ago, Joyce Chance left a refugee camp in Uganda where she had spent the last eleven years. Chance, who was born in Congo, boarded a plane with her two kids, and came to the United States.
A refugee resettlement agency in Concord, New Hampshire picked them up at the airport, and moved them into a one-room apartment.
Seven months later, the state of New Hampshire took Chance’s kids away. The kids’ teachers had suspected child abuse, and contacted the Department of Child and Family Services. DCYF placed the children - who are 9 and 12 - first with relatives, then later with a foster family.
The agency instructed Chance not to contact her children, and according to her attorney, she didn’t.
A month later, Concord Police arrested Chance, charging her with five counts of assault against her children. If she is convicted, she could be deported.
People who know Chance say she should not have been arrested and never belonged in jail.
I met Chance’s attorney, Robin Davis, in her office the day before Chance’s second bail hearing.
“The big issue here is the cultural differences,” she told me. According to Chance, corporal punishment is a common way to discipline children in Congo and Uganda. “When I [got] here,” Chance would later tell me through a translator, “Nobody [told] me it’s not okay to punish your children that way.”
To be clear, a guardian can use physical force against a minor when she reasonably believes it is necessary, according to New Hampshire statue. The state will likely argue Chance’s behavior was reckless and caused substantial pain, making it illegal.
The night she was arrested, Chance slept at the county jail. In court the following day, a judge came to two conclusions: that Chance was a “flight risk” and could not be trusted to return to court, and that she presented a danger to her community. Chance returned to jail and waited three weeks for another bail hearing.
I met Samuel Bahuma while Chance was behind bars. Bahuma is a middle-aged father who immigrated to New Hampshire as a refugee from Congo over a decade ago. He considers himself a community leader, and knows Chance. “Chance is not a danger to the community,” he told me. “She need help.”
Bahuma and Chance’s attorney say Chance’s experience in the justice system has been marked by miscommunications and a lack of information.
A language barrier
Chance doesn’t speak English.
According to Bahuma, it’s easy for police to assume someone is guilty when he or she can’t communicate directly. This is especially true, he said, when police are responding to a tip or call from someone who does speak English. “I’m not saying police are bad,” he said. “I’m saying they come according to the information they have.”
Chance’s attorney said she fears the inherent clumsiness of translation has affected the law enforcement investigation that led to Chances arrest as well as the bail arguments that followed.
War and violence
But more importantly, Bahuma and Davis say law enforcement and the court need to understand place Chance is coming from. These last nine months are the first time Chance hasn’t been subject to war and violence in her life. She’s 32.
“She is traumatized for so long,” said Bahuma. Where Chance lived in Congo, Bahuma said, “most of woman, they have experience of rape, by either military or police.” This kind of rape, he said, is particularly brutal, and can occur frequently and for years. Sometimes it persists even within refugee camps.
“I think there’s a gap here that needs to be filled,” Robin Davis said. People like Chance need more opportunities to learn about local laws, she said, and law enforcement need to understand the hardships faced by the communities they serve.
Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood said his department used to attend regular meetings with members of the African refugee community. New residents would ask about things like domestic violence and driving laws, and “we learned a lot too,” he said.
Those meetings halted over a year ago, when the nonprofit that hosted them, New American Africans, lost its leadership.
The court’s lack of information about refugees was conspicuous at Joyce Chance’s initial bail hearing – the one where a judge decided Chance was both a flight risk and a danger. The judge, Diane Nicolosi, explained her reasoning.
“As I have no understanding of her status in this community,” Nicolosi said, “I have no idea what the refugee community from the Congo, how it exists in this state and others.”
The facts were available at the time.
A refugee case worker assigned to assist Chance was in the courtroom. She likely could have explained that refugees in this country have rigorous identity and background screenings. She also knew that Chance’s family lives in the same apartment complex as Chance; and that Chance goes to church, takes English classes and has a community.
That caseworker was not asked to speak during the bail hearing.
Then, Judge Nicolosi alluded to another accusation against Chance. This was about her kids. It’s something Robin Davis later described as “hurtful.”
During their investigation, Concord police discovered that in addition to their shared language, Chance’s children speak another language she doesn’t speak. Now, the state questions if the kids are her own.
Bahuma – the Congolese community leader – laughed when I asked him about it.
He explained that Chance’s kids grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. There, teachers spoke a different language than Chance would have learned in the Congo.
A DNA test could settle things. That hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the police alerted Homeland Security, who may be investigating her for visa fraud. The prospect of federal charges bolstered the state’s argument that Chance may flee.
After that initial bail hearing, Chance’s attorney Robin Davis quickly requested a second hearing to try bring Chance home. It wouldn’t get on the court’s docket for another three weeks.
“What was it like, going to jail?” I asked Chance.
“I was scared,” she said.
As Chance waited in jail, her attorney fretted. The Merrimack County Jail in Boscowen doesn’t have translation services available around the clock. Instead, a case worker has to request a translator to come to the jail when needed.
“She doesn’t have the ability to ask for the simple things like a glass of water, or to advise them if she’s having any health issues,” Davis said. “Many times she will not be complying with things like head count because she doesn’t understand.”
Chance spent three weeks behind bars. When her second hearing finally arrived, Judge Nicolosi was at the bench again. Chance sat in an orange jumpsuit, her ankles shackled.
This time, a few things were different. Chance’s supporters filled two rows of benches. Her pastor was there, too. And Chance’s attorney came armed with information about refugees.
Judge Nicolosi let Chance go home.
A trial date hasn’t been set yet. When it is, the stakes will be high. A felony conviction could mean deportation.