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Judge order mother to learn English, use birth control
Jan 28, 2005 12:00 am
Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum maintains he was merely trying to ensure an American-born 2-year-old's future when he ordered her Hispanic mother to learn English and take birth control.
But a local attorney with a similar case pending in juvenile court says the judge "is just plain wrong" and that he will fight for sanctions to put an end to such court orders "all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary."
"He needs to read the U.S. Constitution and then he needs to read the law," attorney Jerry Gonzalez said of Tatum.
With the woman and her child before the bench on Monday, Tatum remarked that he hoped to avoid a "Tower of Babel situation" by having the woman learn English, then also ordered her to use "birth control."
When asked about his decision later, the judge said he entered the order 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 described the case as atypical for juvenile court despite a recent influx of Hispanic immigrants in recent years. The child was recently in foster care but was returned to her mother a few weeks ago, he said, adding that Monday's hearing was a review of the progress in the case.
He said the child's mother – who is not a U.S. citizen – speaks a dialect known as Mextica which he said is "a very small part of the Spanish-speaking community" thereby creating potential "cultural problems."
The mother has "turned her back" on U.S. culture, according to Tatum, who said he ultimately doesn't care if the woman ever learns English "as long as someone teaches the child to speak 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," he said.
As for the order regarding birth control, Tatum readily acknowledged there is no practical way to enforce such a demand and admitted the use of contraception violates the religious beliefs of some Americans.
"Is she going to lose her child because she doesn't use birth control? No, she's not," Tatum said. "But again, I felt like there had to be some way to emphasize to her there are some other options."
As for the instruction regarding teaching the child English, however, Tatum said the woman could "potentially" lose custody of the toddler for failing to follow that order.
"I'm not against someone retaining a sense of their culture. I think that's a great thing," the judge said. "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."
Gonzalez, when contacted about Tatum's remarks, said he has just entered into a court battle over a similar order handed down by Tatum, though he could not discuss details because of juvenile court confidentiality rules.
"Whatever dialect of whatever language she speaks should have absolutely no bearing on what happens to her in court," Gonzalez said. "That woman has the right to raise her child in any way she sees fit. His job is to enforce the law, period. As a juvenile judge his job is to determine if the woman is an unfit parent or if this child is in danger of substantial harm. Other than that, how she raises her child is, frankly, just none of his business."
Gonzalez said "numerous courts" have ruled that judges have no right to impose language requirements on immigrants.
"Where does he get the impression that American culture has to include the English language in the first place? There are huge areas of this country where English is hardly spoken at all," the attorney said.
As for the case he has pending before Tatum, Gonzalez indicated he is prepared for a full-scale court battle.
"I fully intend to push it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, and he will be overturned, I guarantee it," Gonzalez said. "And if I have my way, the court of criminal appeals will also issue some sanctions to put a stop to these kinds of court orders."
Gonzalez also suggested that Tatum acted improperly by entering orders that could not be enforced.
"His job is not to get up there and scare people," the attorney said. "He's not there to scare people. He's supposed to follow the law, not just issue orders because he feels it's the right thing to do. Court orders are supposed to be based on the law. If we had judges just issuing orders based on what they thought was right instead of the law, we would have about 10,000 different laws all contradicting each other."
Tatum said he was well aware of legal guidelines but felt the order was needed nonetheless.
"I don't have the authority to say she can't have her child because of a the language or birth control, sure, but I felt like I was giving her an opportunity, as a relatively new arrival to the U.S., to take steps necessary to see that her child gets all the benefits of citizenship in our country," Tatum said.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.