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Hispanic mother reunited with child
Apr 28, 2005 12:00 am
APRIL 27, 2005
Unaware her plight sparked an international sensation, a teenage Hispanic mother ordered to learn English and "use birth control" in a child custody case was permanently reunited with her daughter by the same judge roundly criticized for such court orders.
Just one week after deferring action on a highly similar case, Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum on Monday granted Victoria Luna, 18, full permanent custody of her U.S.-born 3-year-old.
In a January court appearance arising from allegations of child neglect, Tatum told Luna she must learn English and "use birth control" to maintain custody of her daughter, directives the judge defended in an interview with The Lebanon Democrat afterward.
The case of Luna – whose identity remained a mystery until Monday – focused global attention on Tatum's normally quiet courtroom when a number of civil rights activists and attorneys alike harshly criticized the judge's orders, which received international publicity.
A short while later an area attorney confirmed he also represented a Spanish-speaking mother under a similar court order imposed by Tatum. That case – in which a nationally known civil rights group and Mexican consulate are also involved – remains undecided after the judge last week deferred action until a related circuit court appeal is settled.
Monday's hearing for Luna was a stark contrast to last week's court appearance for immigrant mother Felipe Berrera, which was held in a packed courtroom filled with television cameras and reporters.
Luna – flanked by attorneys Julie Rowland and David Kennedy along with a state social worker – saw her case end quietly in a courtroom holding only one visible spectator and translator.
"As far as English classes she has participated in some," Rowland told Tatum, adding Luna is "doing very well with the baby" and past concerns of potential neglect are no longer an issue.
She said state social workers recommended Luna be granted full-time permanent custody of her child "based on the progress she's made."
Kennedy, appointed to protect the best interests of the child, told Tatum he had "no problem with that."
When the judge issued his ruling Luna thanked Tatum, drawing a warm smile from the frequently criticized jurist.
"You're welcome," Tatum said.
Afterward Luna – answering questions posed partially in English and partially in Spanish – said she was unaware of the media coverage surrounding her own legal plight and the second case that came to light as its result.
Cuddling her active, well-groomed daughter and occasionally flashing a bright smile, Luna said only she is pleased the case is over.
"Esta bien," Luna said, utilizing the Spanish phrase for "It is good."
She told a reporter she is doing well in her job and is continuing to learn English.
"I work in Smyrna. I speak a little English," she said in a quiet, heavily accented voice.
Rowland indicated after the hearing the orders issued by Tatum were amended since her client's January court appearance when attorneys asked him to "reconsider."
As a result, Rowland said, the order regarding birth control "was never an issue."
"When it was brought before the court that issue was eliminated," the attorney said.
She said the language requirement remained in Tatum's formal court order but only as a "recommendation."
"The order reads that the court recommends it," Rowland said.
The attorney said she felt Tatum's original order was misconstrued by some.
"I don't feel like she was ever ordered to speak it (English), she was just asked to make some effort," Rowland said.
She said Luna "basically agreed" she would "benefit" by speaking at least some English.
At the time he issued the orders last January, Tatum said from the bench he hoped to avoid a "Tower of Babel situation" by having the woman learn English, then in an interview afterward said he issued the directives as a way to "emphasize the choices available to her."
Tatum said he feared the child would "lose out on all the opportunities available" as a U.S. citizen if she was not taught English.
"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," the judge said.
Tatum went on to acknowledge the order regarding birth control was possibly unconstitutional and largely un-enforceable but said Luna could "potentially" lose custody of her daughter for failing to follow the order regarding English.
"I have to look out for the best interest of the child and that's what I was trying to do in this case … Is she going to lose her child because she doesn't use birth control? No, she's not," Tatum said in January. "But again, I felt like there had to be some way to emphasize to her there are some other options … I'm not against someone retaining a sense of their culture. I think that's a great thing … But at the same time, I have to do what I can to see that child develop in as normal of a manner as possible. We owe that to our children."
Attorneys for Berrera – who like Luna speaks a Spanish dialect known as Mextican – said they would be agreeable to such a "recommendation" in their case but vowed to continue their legal battle against a court order from Tatum requiring their client to learn English.
"I think it would be fine if he just makes a recommendation, but he has specifically ordered our client to learn English – there's a big difference," said attorney Rhonda Brownstein of the Birmingham-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading civil rights organization which actively joined the legal fight on behalf of Berrera.
Attorney Jerry Gonzalez, another attorney representing Berrera, agreed while a recommendation would be agreeable, a court order requiring his client to learn English is not.
"I'm not opposed at all to the judge making any kinds of recommendations he sees fit. I don't have a problem with that at all," said Gonzalez, who has active in a number of civil rights cases and has perhaps been Tatum's most vocal critic. "But there's no question there's still an order standing against my client. It just sounds like in this case everyone is kind of recreating history and all of a sudden saying no, this is a recommendation, not an order. But in our case it's crystal clear what it is, it's a court order."
Berrera's legal team is set to appear in circuit court May 12 to appeal Tatum's decision temporarily stripping her of custody of her 11-year-old daughter, who has claimed she was abused by her mother.
Tatum deferred action last week on a request the child be returned to her mother until the circuit court appeal is decided, leaving the explosive issue of his language-based court order unsettled.
Staff Writer Cori Galeano contributed to this story.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.