Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Mar 17 13:33:34 UTC 2005


Los Angeles Times, Calif.
Published: Feb 14, 2005
Author: Ellen Barry

Los Angeles Times, Feb.14, 2005

Learn English, Judge Tells Moms A Tennessee jurist who has ordered mothers
to take language lessons wins the praise of some locals but raises alarm
among rights advocates.

By Ellen Barry Times Staff Writer

LEBANON, Tenn.  A judge hearing child abuse and neglect cases in Tennessee
has given an unusual instruction to some immigrant mothers who have come
before him: Learn English, or else. Most recently, it was an 18-year-old
woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, who had been reported to the Department of
Children's Services for failing to immunize her toddler and show up for
appointments. At a hearing last month to monitor the mother's custody of
the child, Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum instructed the woman to learn
English and to use birth control, the Lebanon Democrat newspaper reported.

Last October, Tatum gave a similar order to a Mexican woman who had been
cited for neglect of her 11-year-old daughter, said a lawyer who is
representing the woman in her appeal. Setting a court date six months
away, the judge told the woman she should be able to speak English at a
fourth-grade level by that meeting. If she failed, he warned, he would
begin the process of termination of parental rights. "The court specially
informs the mother that if she does not make the effort to learn English,
she is running the risk of losing any connection legally, morally and
physically with her daughter forever," reads a court order from the
hearing, according to Jerry Gonzalez, the Nashville attorney who
represents the woman.

Tatum's orders have become the subject of debate in this Tennessee
community, which has seen an influx of non-English speakers over the last
decade. Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties
Union, have charged that his orders are discriminatory and
unconstitutional. But many of Tatum's neighbors cheered the principle
behind his act, saying new immigrants should be encouraged to assimilate
more fully into American life. Juvenile court proceedings are often more
informal than adult cases, and it's not unusual for judges to give
lifestyle advice to parents who come before them in neglect or abuse
cases. And, when written down and signed by the judge, those instructions
take on the force of a court order.

Such orders should pertain to behavior that contributes to abuse and
neglect, said Susan Brooks, an expert on family law at Vanderbilt
University Law School. Brooks said she was not familiar with Tatum's
orders, but typically the inability to speak English would not fall into
that category. The state Supreme Court regards the right to raise one's
own children as a fundamental one, she added. "That's treading on sacred
ground," she said.

Tatum did not respond to interview requests from the Los Angeles Times,
but he has explained that he gave the orders in hopes that the parents
would make a greater effort to assimilate into American society, opening
more opportunities to their children. He has given similar orders to
non-English-speaking parents in as many as five cases. "Here we have an
American citizen who runs the risk of losing out on all the opportunities
if she's not assimilated into the culture," he told the Lebanon Democrat.
He said he has never removed a child from a parent because the parent did
not speak English.

Because records from juvenile court are sealed, further details of the
cases were not available. In Lebanon, a city 20 miles east of Nashville
with a population just over 20,000, it was once rare to hear a foreign
accent, much less a foreign language. Now Lebanon has become home to more
than 1,200 foreign-born agricultural and manufacturing workers, including
about 400 whose primary language is Mixteco, a language indigenous to

Though the judge's order may have been a mistake, "the general sentiment
is, if people are going to be in this country, we all have a moral
obligation to learn to speak the language," said Bob Bright, 61, who runs
an insurance agency in Lebanon. "I know if I was in Mexico I would make an
effort to learn Hispanic." Tatum, a first-term judge, is becoming known
for his unorthodox rulings.  Last year, for instance, he sentenced a
father to attend high school with his son to address repeated truancy.
Bright said the jurist a well-liked attorney before he was elected judge
has been known to pay personal visits to prisoners in jail and to join
troubled teens in picking up trash as part of their community service.

In the October case, Tatum made a clear link between the mother's English
abilities and her parental rights, said Gonzalez, the mother's attorney.
In the case, an 11-year-old girl had been placed with a foster family
after allegations of neglect, Gonzalez said. The mother, who spoke only
Mixteco, asked the court to arrange counseling, and the judge denied that
request, instead giving the women a deadline for basic mastery of English.

Gonzalez would not share the judge's written orders, dated Nov. 4, but
read a long passage from the document. "If the mother is able to learn
English, she will be able to speak with her daughter for the first time in
a substantive manner and will show her that she loves her and is willing
to do anything necessary to connect with her," the order read. Gonzalez
said the judge was setting the mother up for failure.

"She probably doesn't have a sixth-grade education. I daresay the judge
himself, an educated man, could not learn to speak Spanish to a
fourth-grade level in six months," Gonzalez said. "He gave her an
impossible task." In Wilson County, immigrant workers began to arrive
about a decade ago, attracted by its small-town feel and by jobs. The
workers, who mostly are Mexican, live in clusters in which they can
communicate in their own language, said Alexis Andino, 41, who heads a
Latino ministry at Lebanon's First Baptist Church.

Language has become a flash point for some of the local population, which
was measured as 83% white in the 2000 census. Glenda Williams, 57, a clerk
at Cuz's Antique Center, said some shopkeepers have gone out of their way
to accommodate the new immigrants by studying Spanish. Williams is not one
of them. "I'm not taking a class, and I don't plan to," Williams said. "If
you come through that door and you don't speak English, I'm sorry. If you
love it that much here, you take the time to take" an English class.

And several local people interviewed said the flap over Tatum's orders has
not hurt his reputation. "That was his way of helping [the mother] and her
child," said Jane Stroud, 67, who works in a Western wear shop. Linguistic
isolation is a real problem, especially for Mixteco-speaking immigrants
some of whom speak no Spanish and are illiterate in any language, Andino
said. Some of those families have not enrolled their children in school,
he said.

He recalled his alarm at visiting a trailer owned by one such family. The
mother had never lived in a home with a carpet, and the floor of the
trailer was so dirty he feared for the health of her children. Andino
taught her how to use a vacuum. "They don't know how to do basic things.
They're way behind," he said. He added, though, that forcing immigrants to
assimilate might not work. "You need to pull a rope, not push it."

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