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Hispanic mother hearing continues
May 18, 2005 12:00 am
May 17, 2005
The woman trying to adopt an 11-year-old Hispanic girl at the center of an extraordinary child custody dispute testified the youth fears other Mexican immigrants and has shunned her biological mother.
The testimony from Emily Patterson of Lebanon capped the second lengthy day of an appeal hearing for Felipe Berrera, who is asking Circuit Judge Clara Byrd to set aside a juvenile court ruling awarding temporary custody of her daughter to Patterson and her husband.
Berrera's case drew international attention when Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum required she learn to speak English as a condition to regaining custody of her daughter. Linda Cano. The ruling resulted in a barrage of criticism for the judge and drawing a nationally recognized civil rights organization into the legal battle.
Patterson, a Southside Elementary School teacher, was one of a half-dozen officials from the school to testify Monday about Cano's struggles as a Hispanic-speaking student from a seemingly poor home.
Patterson told the court about the allegation of abuse that led to Cano being temporarily taken from her home, describing a two-inch "bruise" on "her thigh on her right leg" that the child claimed came from being "struck with something black, like a black stick."
Like other witnesses who preceded her to the stand, however, Patterson testified Cano said it was her older brother's teenage wife – not her mother – who inflicted the alleged injury.
Under questioning by her attorney, Amanda Crowell, Patterson testified she reported the allegation to the state Department of Children's Services as a possible case of abuse.
Patterson maintained the bruise coupled with other information she had gleaned about the child led her to level the allegation.
"She was doing poorly in school and at that point in time I had enough suspicion of abuse that by law I had to call DCS," she testified.
She said Cano told her that her brother's wife "sometimes would pull her hair and keep her from eating, not let her eat."
Patterson also told the court about Cano's struggles with head lice and about a two and one-half month absence from school in which the child's cousins said the 11-year-old "had to stay home to take care of the kids."
Patterson testified according to the child, the two-plus months was the only time she had ever lived with her mother.
"Not that she's been able to tell us," the witness replied when Crowell asked if Cano had ever lived with her mother on other occasions. "She remembers her grandmother."
In response to another question from her lawyer, Patterson said Cano fears other Hispanics and wants nothing to do with her biological mom.
"She said she didn't want to see her mother or talk to her mother," Patterson testified, adding when the child encounters someone who "looks like they're from her culture" she "wants to leave … wherever we are immediately."
Patterson said Cano – who has made "dramatic" strides in speaking English – also recently told her she no longer wanted to attend an English-as-second-language class with her cousins.
Patterson is expected to undergo a grueling cross-examination when the hearing enters its third day Wednesday. There will be no testimony in the emotionally charged case Tuesday because of scheduling conflicts among attorneys.
Attorneys for Berrera on Monday again issued numerous objections to the relevancy of testimony from various Southside officials, with Byrd – as she did on the trial's opening day – allowing most of the disputed testimony.
But the judge was adamant on how Cano herself will be handled when the child is put on the witness stand to testify.
Byrd ordered only she will be allowed to ask questions – though attorneys on both sides can provide them – and the interrogation will take place in her chambers.
That launched one of the hottest exchanges of the day as Berrera's legal team – including a representative of the Birmingham-based Southern Poverty Law Center – grappled in open court with the judge's ground rules.
Byrd was hesitant about allowing expert witnesses under subpoena by the defense to sit in on the questioning of the child, seemingly frustrating attorney Jerry Gonzalez and SPLC attorney Mary Bauer.
At one point Gonzalez referred to Byrd's ground rules for the child's testimony as "a moving target" and complained the judge seemed to be changing the guidelines throughout the day.
Though the volatile language issue that brought international attention to Berrera's case has been only a marginal part of the appeal hearing, testimony has at times focused almost exclusively on language with Gonzalez and Bauer questioning educators at length on school records and other documents. Attorneys have also made it a point to ask each witness if they communicated with the child in English or Spanish.
The cautious, deliberate nature of the civil court proceedings – slowed by the numerous objections from attorneys – was reduced to a snail's pace Monday as Byrd arranged for an attorney to represent Cano's biological father.
The judge appointed local attorney Adam Parrish to represent the man, who has reportedly said he does not want to give up legal rights to his daughter but who had not formally entered the legal battle when it began last week.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.