A custody fight in Georgia is illustrating the biases of a foster care system that some say routinely subverts the parental rights of undocumented and non-English speaking mothers and fathers:
Ovidio and Domitina Mendez’s lost their five children to foster care when the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services arrived at their home claimed the kids were malnourished. The couple, who are both undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, says they did everything the child welfare agency asked them to do to get their kids back. But three years later, the children are still in foster care with strangers. Why? Because they are undocumented immigrants who speak Spanish, according to advocates.
A recent study by the Applied Research Center revealed that at least 5,100 children are languishing in America’s foster care system because their immigrant parents were detained or deported. But the report also found that even when undocumented parents are not detained or deported, they face bias in the child welfare system as a result of cultural and language discrimination.
For instance, at the June hearing that terminated the Mendez’s parental rights, they were peppered with seemingly irrelevant questions about their English-speaking ability and immigration status. “Describe for the court why even three years after [the children went into the state’s custody] you cannot speak English without an interpreter,” asked Bruce Kling, special assistant attorney general for Whitfield County Department of Family and Children’s Service.
The state also argued that the Mendezes’ should not regain custody because, as undocumented immigrants, they could not attain driver’s licenses and therefore couldn’t transport their children. ARC found that many county child welfare departments give this justification for why undocumented parents can’t be trusted as caregivers.
The suggestion that undocumented immigrants are unfit parents (usually for reasons related to their poverty) is often used to separate them from their children. But children then remain in foster care because of the barriers that undocumented mothers and fathers face in trying to regain custody. Parents’ undocumented status also works against them by preventing them from accessing state services that would enable them to better provide for their children.