Fighting for their children

Indigenous couple refuses to give up

Cultural and language barriers have not stopped parents from trying to get their children back.

By María Alejandra Bastidas

Aug. 4, 2011

Mundo Hispánico, Atlanta

More than two years have passed since Tomitina and Ovidio Mendez began their battle against the U.S. judicial system in order to regain custody of their children: Angela, Angel, Ever, Miriam, and Debby.

The parents, of indigenous Mayan descent, live in Dalton and barely speak English or Spanish. However, ever since the Division of Family and Child Services (DFCS) took their children away for alleged medical negligence, the language barrier has not stopped the parents from fighting against what they consider to be an injustice.

The Mendez’ battle for their children began with a visit to the doctor. At that time, the couple had only four children, three of whom have disabilities. The fifth, Debby, was on the way.

“The doctor always told me that everything was fine. I would ask him, ‘why doesn’t the girl (Angela) walk?’ ‘That’s normal, little by little she’ll learn,’” said Tomitila, “and then DFCS showed up to investigate.”

After that incident, DFCS opened an investigation and, as a result, the Mendez’ children were taken into state custody. Two of them were malnourished, which the DFCS believed could represent negligence on the part of the parents.

But their tragedy didn’t stop there. Shortly thereafter, DFCS came back, this time to take custody of Debby, who was still being breast fed.

“I was pregnant and a week after my daughter was born. social workers showed up and took her,” said Tomitila, who is 24 years old.

Since then, the couple has only been able to visit their children once a month, either at court hearings or at doctor appointments when they are taken by their foster parents.

“The social worker says that we aren’t able to take care of our children, because they have special needs. I don’t want this to happen. If someone from the pharmacy could simply explain to me how to give them their medications, I could do it,” said Tomitila, who is originally from Guatemala.

Case in dispute

Darice M. Good, the lawyer who handled the Mendez’ case, believes that not enough resources were provided to the parents in order to regain custody of their children, such as the support of Spanish- or Mayan-speaking family counselors.

“The help that they (DFCS) have given them is not enough for people who have a very basic education and don’t speak English,” said Good.

Furthermore, according to Guatemalan Consul Beatriz Illescas, the initial accusations were baseless.

“They said that the children were malnourished, but then it was proven that they had a mitochondrial disease that made their bodies not absorb nutrients properly,” said Illescas, who has defended the family since the beginning of this case.

Ovidio, the 26-year-old father of the children, also expressed his frustration about the lack of support given by DFCS.

“They don’t give us help in English or Spanish. The problem is that woman [the social worker] only talks to the foster mother,” he said.

Because this case deals with minors, the judges and DFCS representatives involved cannot comment. However, the spokeswoman of this organization, Revae Graham, said that all social workers have access to a telephonic interpreter service in order to communicate with individuals who do not speak English. She did not know, however, if these services include indigenous languages.

“DFCS social workers do not decide whether or not a child stays with their parents, they simply obtain evidence for the case. The judges are the ones who make the decision to take away parental guardianship,” said Graham.

At the same time, “once parental guardianship is taken away from the parents, the children remain under state custody, but that doesn’t mean that they are immediately put up for adoption,” Graham explained.

Trying the impossible

The Mendez’s case was brought to the Juvenile Court of Dalton in order to determine whether the couple would be able to regain custody of their children.

There, Judge Connie Blaylock stated that the parents would be required to have stable incomes, a home and a means of transportation in order to be able to recover their children.

According to Ovidio, both parents currently work at a carpet factory; have a car (though neither has a driver’s license); and have a four-bedroom home to comfortably house their children.

The judge also ordered that the couple attend their children’s medical appointments and have a greater presence in their school. According to their testimony, the couple did so.

But in the last hearing, on June 13, the ruling was not in their favor. According to Good, the couple’s parental guardianship was taken away because it was determined that they are not able to take care of their children.

Upon hearing the verdict, Illescas said she felt disappointed.

“These parents have not been negligent. They don’t have a criminal record; they haven’t abused their children. What happened here is that the judge was prejudiced because they are undocumented and their education level is low,” said Illescas.

Illescas is currently planning on finding another lawyer to represent the couple and appeal the decision.

“I understand that DFCS has to defend the rights of children, but who is defending the rights of the parents? I am going to do everything within my power to help them.”

While a new trial begins, Ovidio said he feels doubly worried: on the one hand, he feels his wife has become melancholic. On the other hand, the couple can no longer see their children.

“Something really bad has happened to us,” he said.

Many obstacles

For psychotherapist Rocio Woody, who worked for two years as an investigator for DFCS, the Mendez case is not surprising. For Woody, it is much more likely for Hispanic parents to lose custody of their children, because –in addition to not knowing local laws– they face a system that does not know their culture and sometimes lacks willingness, compassion, or patience.

“DFCS social workers are trained with the American population in mind, and many times they do not have the resources or training to serve families with special needs and limitations, due to cultural factors,” said Woody.

Judge Blaylock’s decision did not surprise Woody either, as she believes it is difficult for some jurists to comprehend people of other nationalities and the cultural factors that motivate their decisions.

“If you speak to judges who have been exposed to other cultures, in their courts they will have a better understanding of peoples’ cultural differences than a judge who has only experienced life in Georgia.”

For Woody, some judges proceed in this manner because they believe that all immigrants should learn English and integrate into the American culture.


Language barriers and lack of education

The majority of indigenous Guatemalan families, who, like the Mendez family, migrate to Georgia, come from areas with high levels of child malnourishment, according to Dr. Alan LeBaron. For the past 10 years, LeBaron has directed the Maya Heritage Community Project at Kennesaw State University.

According to LeBaron, a large gap exists between immigrants’ education levels and the United States legal system.

“They don’t understand about ‘nations’ or ‘borders,’ and they don’t know the laws in the United States,” LeBaron said.

Language barriers are common as well, said LeBaron, since many indigenous immigrants do not speak Spanish. “Even when DFCS uses interpreters, it’s usually someone who knows little about the dialect that these families speak.”

“I don’t believe that these are reasons to take children away from their parents. I think that the fault lies with our system, which criminalizes and blames people who are here, without accepting our part of the responsibility,” LeBaron emphasized.

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