Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Wilson County judge orders Hispanic mothers to communicate with children in English

The Tennessean reports that Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum has advised Hispanic mothers in his courtroom that they should communicate with their children in English. Judge Tatum has issued orders directing mothers to learn English, but the Lebanon Democrat reports that Judge Tatum doesn't care if the mother learns English, as long as her children do, so that they can be assimilated into the culture. Judge Tatum acknowledged, "I don’t have the authority to say she can’t have her child because of the language..."

It is unclear whether Judge Tatum's orders to learn English, some of which are sealed and some of which have not yet been filed, carry the force of law or are mere suggestions. Attorney Jerry Gonzalez says that one of Judge Tatum's orders threatened the mother's custody of her child if she failed to learn English. Gonzalez argues that merely ordering someone to learn English violates the U.S. Constitution.

A Tennessean editorial criticized Tatum's rulings: "Look at the scenario from the viewpoint of these mothers. Even if Tatum is urging them to learn English — not ordering them — they still see a government official who is linking their language skills with their ability to keep their children. Even someone highly proficient in English could interpret that suggestion as a threat. Every person who lives in this nation would benefit from learning English. That's particularly true of parents with young children. But while the inability to speak English is a hindrance, it isn't a crime. And it shouldn't be a factor in keeping one's children."

The Hispanic Nashville Notebook cited a similar case in Nebraska in October 2003.

Update: the Nashville Scene gives the exact language of one of the orders: "'If at the next hearing [the mother] is not able to communicate with the court and remains inarticulate in English, the court will direct that a hearing be set on the pending petition for termination of parental rights.'"

Update: the Tennessean reports that Judge Tatum has been disciplined by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary (story here).

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