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Vulnerable Populations and Problems

From witnessing a recent court case that appeared in a Superior Court, which according to the honorable judge is used for both civil and criminal proceedings, I was astounded to the treatment of a Hispanic man with a limited grasp of English, who was faced with what seemed like an unlimited amount of so-called “experts” against him.  The man appeared obviously confused and uncomfortable with the proceedings and I felt many emotions while watching him struggle.

The reason that he was ordered to appear was because he had previously received a Driving Under the Influence charge (DUI), at some point after this, Child Protective Services had come into his life and determined that his young son should not live with him and the boy was then taken into state’s custody.  The case that I witnessed was a custody hearing for the father to plea for his son to be released back into his care.

The man did not have a lawyer, as he could not afford one.  Contrary to what I had previously believed, all persons are not eligible for legal representation in civil court hearings.  The only persons on the side of the father were his girlfriend, who was a Caucasian

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female, and his translator.  On the prosecutorial side was the state’s attorney, several representatives from the child protection agency, and several Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) workers.

I found out later that CASA workers are volunteers, who must undergo only limited training to work with children and to testify in court as to their best interests.  Their lack of qualifications and their “expert” testimony taken as such was troublesome to me.  Though, thankfully the judge did not seem to base his decisions on the CASA workers and, at times, seemed irritated with their presence.

During my interview with the judge, I asked him if it was common for children to be taken out of their home and into state’s custody when a parent receives a DUI charge.  I have heard of many people receiving such charges and unless the child was in the vehicle (in this case the boy was not) it is extremely uncommon for this to occur.

During the proceedings it was discovered that the main issues that the state had in retaining custody of the boy was not the father’s drinking or his criminal charge (for which he was currently on probation), but because he had no driver’s license to transport the boy and that there was a “language barrier”, so the state child protection agency felt they could not let the child live in a home, where the father could not speak English.

I was extremely shocked to hear this, as many impoverished people do not have vehicles or driver’s licenses, but they do not lose custody of their children.  Also, this court was an area where bus service was available to the man and the boy.  As for the “language barrier”, it seemed quite unfair that since the boy could speak both English and Spanish, but the father Spanish only, it should not have been an issue. There was no language barrier between father and son, only between the father and the state.

After a litany of state workers and CASA volunteers gave testimony about the aforementioned issues with the father, such as their inability to communicate with him via phone and the problem with him not being able to make appointments with them, as a result, other issues came to light.  The father’s girlfriend testified that she spoke perfect English (as she was of American descent) and that she had tried to intervene on his behalf to take phone calls and to set up appointments.

She testified that she was told that since she was not related to the parties, she could not help them.  Even though the court, obviously employed a translator, it became obvious that the child service agency had no translator in their department. Because of this and not the unwillingness of the father to cooperate, this case seemed heartbreaking.  It would be the equivalent of an American person going to a foreign country, committing a minor crime, and losing his or her child because they could not speak the native language of the country in which they were in.

The trial ended with stipulations put on both parties.  The father had to get his driver’s license after the suspension was up and the child service department had to ensure that a translator would be made available to the father, as he was ready and willing to cooperate and do whatever necessary to regain custody of his son.  The father seemed happy with the outcome and another date was set for 50 days later, as he would have had reasonable time to get his license and fulfill and requirements the child service workers asked of him.

In conclusion, I was concerned and am still with the issue of vulnerable populations in civil court.  The poor are not given attorneys, as they might in criminal proceedings.  Also, the language barrier of the agencies involved with the father should not be an issue that should affect him negatively.  If he and his son wish to speak their native language in their home, it should be of no concern to the state.  Similarly, a person is more vulnerable in the court system if they not only speak English, but even for an English speaker, who does not understand all the “lingo” and legalese used in these settings.

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