Learn English, Judge Tells Moms

Times Staff Writer

A judge hearing child abuse and neglect cases in Tennessee has given an unusual instruction to some immigrant mothers who have come before him: Learn English, or else.

Most recently, it was an 18-year-old woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, who had been reported to the Department of Children’s Services for failing to immunize her toddler and show up for appointments. At a hearing last month to monitor the mother’s custody of the child, Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum instructed the woman to learn English and to use birth control, the Lebanon Democrat newspaper reported.

Last October, Tatum gave a similar order to a Mexican woman who had been cited for neglect of her 11-year-old daughter, said a lawyer who is representing the woman in her appeal. Setting a court date six months away, the judge told the woman she should be able to speak English at a fourth-grade level by that meeting. If she failed, he warned, he would begin the process of termination of parental rights.


“The court specially informs the mother that if she does not make the effort to learn English, she is running the risk of losing any connection -- legally, morally and physically -- with her daughter forever,” reads a court order from the hearing, according to Jerry Gonzalez, the Nashville attorney who represents the woman.

Tatum’s orders have become the subject of debate in this Tennessee community, which has seen an influx of non-English speakers over the last decade. Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have charged that his orders are discriminatory and unconstitutional. But many of Tatum’s neighbors cheered the principle behind his act, saying new immigrants should be encouraged to assimilate more fully into American life.

Juvenile court proceedings are often more informal than adult cases, and it’s not unusual for judges to give lifestyle advice to parents who come before them in neglect or abuse cases. And, when written down and signed by the judge, those instructions take on the force of a court order.

Such orders should pertain to behavior that contributes to abuse and neglect, said Susan Brooks, an expert on family law at Vanderbilt University Law School. Brooks said she was not familiar with Tatum’s orders, but typically the inability to speak English would not fall into that category. The state Supreme Court regards the right to raise one’s own children as a fundamental one, she added.

“That’s treading on sacred ground,” she said.

Tatum did not respond to interview requests from the Los Angeles Times, but he has explained that he gave the orders in hopes that the parents would make a greater effort to assimilate into American society, opening more opportunities to their children. He has given similar orders to non-English-speaking parents in as many as five cases.

“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,” he told the Lebanon Democrat. He said he has never removed a child from a parent because the parent did not speak English.


Because records from juvenile court are sealed, further details of the cases were not available.

In Lebanon, a city 20 miles east of Nashville with a population just over 20,000, it was once rare to hear a foreign accent, much less a foreign language. Now Lebanon has become home to more than 1,200 foreign-born agricultural and manufacturing workers, including about 400 whose primary language is Mixteco, a language indigenous to Mexico.

Though the judge’s order may have been a mistake, “the general sentiment is, if people are going to be in this country, we all have a moral obligation to learn to speak the language,” said Bob Bright, 61, who runs an insurance agency in Lebanon.

“I know if I was in Mexico I would make an effort to learn Hispanic.”

Tatum, a first-term judge, is becoming known for his unorthodox rulings. Last year, for instance, he sentenced a father to attend high school with his son to address repeated truancy. Bright said the jurist -- a well-liked attorney before he was elected judge -- has been known to pay personal visits to prisoners in jail and to join troubled teens in picking up trash as part of their community service.

In the October case, Tatum made a clear link between the mother’s English abilities and her parental rights, said Gonzalez, the mother’s attorney.

In the case, an 11-year-old girl had been placed with a foster family after allegations of neglect, Gonzalez said. The mother, who spoke only Mixteco, asked the court to arrange counseling, and the judge denied that request, instead giving the women a deadline for basic mastery of English.

Gonzalez would not share the judge’s written orders, dated Nov. 4, but read a long passage from the document.

“If the mother is able to learn English, she will be able to speak with her daughter for the first time in a substantive manner and will show her that she loves her and is willing to do anything necessary to connect with her,” the order read.

Gonzalez said the judge was setting the mother up for failure.

“She probably doesn’t have a sixth-grade education. I daresay the judge himself, an educated man, could not learn to speak Spanish to a fourth-grade level in six months,” Gonzalez said. “He gave her an impossible task.”

In Wilson County, immigrant workers began to arrive about a decade ago, attracted by its small-town feel and by jobs. The workers, who mostly are Mexican, live in clusters in which they can communicate in their own language, said Alexis Andino, 41, who heads a Latino ministry at Lebanon’s First Baptist Church.

Language has become a flash point for some of the local population, which was measured as 83% white in the 2000 census.

Glenda Williams, 57, a clerk at Cuz’s Antique Center, said some shopkeepers have gone out of their way to accommodate the new immigrants by studying Spanish. Williams is not one of them. “I’m not taking a class, and I don’t plan to,” Williams said. “If you come through that door and you don’t speak English, I’m sorry. If you love it that much here, you take the time to take” an English class.

And several local people interviewed said the flap over Tatum’s orders has not hurt his reputation. “That was his way of helping [the mother] and her child,” said Jane Stroud, 67, who works in a Western wear shop.

Linguistic isolation is a real problem, especially for Mixteco-speaking immigrants -- some of whom speak no Spanish and are illiterate in any language, Andino said. Some of those families have not enrolled their children in school, he said.

He recalled his alarm at visiting a trailer owned by one such family. The mother had never lived in a home with a carpet, and the floor of the trailer was so dirty he feared for the health of her children. Andino taught her how to use a vacuum.

“They don’t know how to do basic things. They’re way behind,” he said. He added, though, that forcing immigrants to assimilate might not work. “You need to pull a rope, not push it.”