8 Jun 2019

Girl, 9, heading home after being detained in the US for two weeks

11:33 am on 8 June 2019

A nine-year-old Cook Islands girl is finally set to return to her parents after enduring an almost two-week detention in the United States.

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Puna on her flight over to the US. Photo: SUPPLIED/ Marc Pearce

Ngatupuna Raela, known as Puna, was travelling with family friend Marc Pearce, on a holiday that turned into a nightmare once they reached Los Angeles.

Her family in Cook Islands say they just want their girl home, while Mr Pearce says what the US authorities have done is obscene.

US citizen Marc Pearce has known the Raela family for years, after he leased land in Aitutaki next door and bit by bit become a grandfather figure to the young children.

Mr Pearce had taken Puna's older siblings on trips to the United States before.

"She's got four other sisters and I've brought all of them out on a four-week trip to America, so it's her turn," he told Checkpoint.

He said on this occasion, he couldn't find a guardianship document from a US Homeland Security site so he used a Canadian one, but it was signed by Puna's parents and stamped at the High Court of the Cook Islands.

Mr Pearce said when they reached Los Angeles on 25 May, they ran into trouble.

When he told US Customs and Border Control that he was not related to Puna, the signed and stamped paperwork was no help.

The pair were separated and he Mr Pearce has not seen her since.

He said Puna's grandfather told him he received a call from border officials and said he had given permission for Puna to travel with Marc.

But he said US officials denied having any conversation with the family.

"They held me for 11-and-a-half hours and escorted me out of the God-damn terminal and told me they were keeping Puna for her own welfare and security. Now that little girl has been in a s**thole minors camp for 12-to-14 days and that was for her security?"

Mr Pearce also had harsh words for the officials at the New Zealand embassy, who had responsibility on the ground for Cook Islands citizens.

He said they'd told him they couldn't give him any information due to privacy concerns.

"I'm supposed to be her legal guardian and nobody has verified that in the last 13 days either. What in hell are these people doing, on the US side and New Zealand," he said.

He said his own enquiries helped him to find out Puna was being held at Southwest Key, a facility for unaccompanied immigrant minors.

A relative of the Raela family living in the United States, Aimee Miller, said she trusted Mr Pearce with her own kids.

She said he didn't have kids of his own and was very close to the Raela family.

Ngatupuna Raela, known as Puna, was travelling with family friend Marc Pearce, on a holiday when she was detained in Los Angeles for two weeks.

Ngatupuna Raela, known as Puna, was travelling with family friend Marc Pearce, on a holiday when she was detained in Los Angeles for two weeks. Photo: Photo /Supplied

"He's there for weeks at a time, good parts of the year and he's become a second grandfather to these kids. They go back and forth between there house and Mark's house. He goes to their school events, he goes to dinner at the family's house and he's just basically been adopted into the family."

Aimee Miller said for the kids, the trips were just about seeing the world and having a good time with a family friend.

"They're wonderful kids, they are a lot of fun and he brought them and just had a ball here, doing everything from Disney to hotel pools and just having a great time."

Puna's family - Ngatuaine and Miimetua Raela of Nikaupara - said they hadn't been able to speak to their daughter since she was taken away from Mr Pearce on 25 May.

They confirmed that Mr Pearce was a close friend of the family, but would not comment any further about him and the plans for the trip.

Mr Pearce said US Customs officials had questions to ask him as they were suspicious of his intentions.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that it was working closely with the Cook Islands Government and the United States authorities to facilitate Puna's return to the Cook Islands.

The Foreign Ministry of the Cook Islands said it expected a resolution by the end of the week, but said authorities were focused on returning Puna to her parents.

It said it was concerned that a nine-year old girl had been detained in a foreign country for two weeks.

Mrs Miller said the incident should never have happened and the US authorities had questions to answer.

"It stuns me why nobody would listen to the actual family. Ok, they don't want to deal with Marc, but they're not even listening to Puna's own family. That in my mind is very distressing," she said.

It is understood Puna will fly out of the United States to return home tomorrow, two weeks after leaving her parents and then being separated from the only person she knew in a foreign country.