06/10/2005

Immigrant Child Returns to Her Mixteco Family

LEBANON, Tenn. -- An 11-year-old girl whose immigrant mother was ordered to learn English in six months or risk losing her daughter will be reunited with her family next month, a Tennessee circuit court judge ruled Tuesday.

Linda Berrera Cano was taken from her mother, Felipa Berrera, 15 months ago and placed in foster care after there were allegations that Berrera had pulled her ear and that the girl's sister-in-law had hit her with a stick.

Berrera, a Mexican immigrant living in Lebanon, Tenn., speaks Mixteco, one of Mexico's indigenous languages. No Mixteco translators were provided to Berrera during the initial custody proceedings when Linda was removed from her mother's custody and placed in foster care. Center attorneys became involved in the case after Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum ordered Berrera to learn English at a 4th-grade level or have her parental rights terminated.

Judge Clara Byrd ruled Tuesday that Linda will leave her foster family's home and will move in with her father, Antonio Cano, by July 24. Berrera, who does not live with Linda's father, will be granted supervised visitation. The ruling calls for Linda's foster parents, Emily and Warren Patterson, to retain legal custody while she lives with her father.

The ruling came in the middle of a hearing in which Berrera was seeking to regain custody of her daughter.

Byrd rejected a settlement, presented by attorneys representing Berrera, Cano and the Pattersons, that would still have granted custody to Cano, but also would have dismissed the case.

Though all parties agreed to the settlement, Byrd said she wanted to make sure Linda made a smooth transition to her father's home before dismissing the case. Byrd said Tuesday she will make a final ruling in the case after an October hearing to assess Linda's transition to her father's home.

The Center's Immigrant Justice Project, which has played an instrumental role in Berrera's custody battle, refuted the abuse charges and asked that Linda be returned to her mother's home.

Center attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case after lawyers for the couple ended their testimony in the custody hearing last month. The motion claimed the couple, despite days of testimony, failed to provide evidence that Linda is an abused and neglected child as defined by Tennessee law. They also were unable to demonstrate convincing evidence that Linda would suffer substantial harm if she were returned to her mother's custody.

After hearing a day of testimony and argument on May 24, Judge Byrd dismissed the motion.

"We've made some progress, but the proceedings have trampled on our client's rights," said IJP director Mary Bauer. "After six days of testimony, the judge has put the trial on hold for four months. This process is outrageous."