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Hispanic girl's father testifies in custody trial
May 20, 2005 12:00 am
May 19, 2005
Though absent at the start of the proceedings, the father of a young Hispanic girl who is the focus of an intense custody battle testified Wednesday that he longs to visit his daughter.
"I would see her if they would let me go right now. I don't know where she is," Antonio Cano said from the witness stand Wednesday, as the closely watched custody dispute entered the third day of an appeal hearing before Circuit Judge Clara Byrd.
Byrd suffered what court officials described as an allergic reaction and was unable to return to the bench following the proceeding's mid-day recess. The judge was expected to return to court by late afternoon to preside over a pair of depositions that are being taken from out-of-state witnesses in the case, attorneys said.
The delay further slowed the laborious proceedings, and it remained unclear late Wednesday when the hearing would resume. Court officers said Byrd was prepared to remain on the bench until well into the evening to make up for the delay.
The judge is being asked to overturn a juvenile court ruling granting temporary custody of 11-year-old Linda Cano to Emily and Warren Patterson of Lebanon, who are now trying to adopt her.
The girl's father – who was appointed an attorney after telling the court he did not wish to relinquish his parental rights – spent most of his stint on the witness stand describing how he and the child's mother were split up after she left Mexico for the U.S. and detailing his own movements after arriving in Tennessee.
His absence caused Byrd to hesitate at the start of the hearing when she was told Cano did not wish to waive his parental rights. Rather than delaying the proceedings Byrd had Cano located and appointed local attorney Adam Parish to represent him.
Speaking through an interpreter as Parish hovered near the witness stand, Cano testified it was primarily poverty that separated him from the child's mother, Felipe Berrera.
"She was to come here first and then she was to call me to come. We weren't fighting. She came here and I stayed there," he said. "We did not have enough money. We were poor. That is when we got separated. We didn't fight or anything."
It was one of several times Cano used the word "poor" in his testimony as he described moving back and forth between Lebanon and Manchester "in search of a job."
"We followed the jobs here," he said in response to a question from the Pattersons' attorney, Amanda Crowell of Lebanon.
When he finally located Berrera in Middle Tennessee, Cano testified, she "had already gotten married."
Though the witness indicated at one point he felt hesitant about visiting his daughter after Berrera had a new romantic relationship, he later testified about giving her mother "$10 or $20" and trying to buy clothes for his daughter.
"I went to the store to buy her clothes, and I didn't have enough money, we are poor and I have other children," Cano testified.
Under questioning by Crowell, Cano admitted he knew his daughter spent most of her time living with her teenage brother and his wife than her mother.
However, he offered a simple explanation when asked why he did not try to take his daughter from the couple.
"I did not want to take her away from her brother," Cano said.
The day's proceedings began with Emily Patterson testifying she and her husband have made attempts to see Cano remains connected to her cultural roots.
Patterson, during cross examination, asking the child about her memories of Mexico and doing "Internet research to try to learn about her culture."
"We've encouraged her to talk to her cousins at school," testified Patterson, adding the child was originally "afraid" but now spends time with her relatives.
Patterson also testified the youth is "aware" of the possibility that she could be ordered to return to her biological mother as a result of the hearing.
"I have told her that her mother is pursuing legal action which might be an indication that her mother cares about her," she told the court. "I've told her there are lots of options … but that it will be up to the judge."
Patterson denied suggestions from Berrera's defense team that she planned to adopt Cano from the time she took the child into her home, though she conceded the decision was probably made shortly afterward.
Earlier Patterson testified Linda Cano fears other Mexican immigrants and has shunned her mother, telling the court the child has said she doesn't even want to speak to her mom.
Under cross examination by attorney Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center – which became interested in the case because of a juvenile court order requiring Berrera to learn to speak English as a condition of regaining custody – Patterson also said she allowed Cano to refer to her as "mom."
Patterson – who encountered Cano when the child enrolled at Southside Elementary, where she is a teacher – also defended the lack of contact the girl has had with her biological parents since being placed temporarily in her home.
"I think the judge left it up to our discretion," she testified.
The Pattersons were given temporary custody of Cano after the child complained of being abused. Testimony has revealed that several Southside teachers – Emily Patterson among them – allegedly saw a two-inch bruise on the girl's leg.
But Bauer and attorneys Jerry Gonzalez and Yancy Belcher have consistently pointed out during the hearing that the allegation was lodged when Cano was living with her brother's family and not her mother.
The dispute drew international attention when Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum ordered Berrera to learn English as a condition to regaining custody of her child, one of two known cases in which the judge has ordered a Spanish-speaking mother to learn to speak English.
Regardless of Byrd's decision on the appeal, the matter will return to Tatum's court eventually for a hearing on whether the parental rights of Berrera and Cano should be terminated.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.