Friday, January 6, 2017

Safe for Six Year Olds

Two years ago next week, I walked into a family law court hearing for the first time in my life.  I had received an urgent message from Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Services indicating that a client needed representation for an emergency hearing on her petition to terminate family rights.  She did not speak English and did not have anyone available to translate.

The case was docketed for Howard County Circuit Court and I had room on my plate, so I took the case.  I did not speak Spanish, so my first conversation with the client was at the FIRN office in Columbia.  Through an interpreter, she explained that her six-year old daughter had been sexually abused by the client's ex-boyfriend, who was the girl's father.  The father had a drinking problem, which brought on these episodes of abuse.  While the couple was not together, they lived in the same apartment along with the client's mother.  She was in the process of finding a new place to live and/or getting her ex to move out.  Due to her unfamiliarity with the legal process, and discomfort in engaging the authorities, eviction was not an option.

When I asked her whether she had called the police regarding the abuse, the client responded that she was afraid to do so due to her immigration status.  She had overstayed her visa after fleeing violence in Guatemala.  Many of her family members, including her father, had been killed in her home country and it was not safe for her to return.  She had been told that refugee status was not available.

The client had called a social worker about the abuse, who had involved the police.  When the police arrived at her house, her ex jumped out of the back window of the apartment and ran.  Due to her concern about deportation, she refused to cooperate with the investigation and it was closed.  There was a period of time in which the ex was no longer living in the apartment, but after about two weeks he showed up again.  The client worked about 12-14 hours a day as a house-cleaner and asked her mother to watch her daughter while she was gone.  The ex would be around the house during those periods and she was concerned that the abuse would continue outside of the purview of her mom.  Every day she would leave home for work, she knew that she was leaving her daughter vulnerable to a predator.

I am happy to say that we were successful with both the termination of parental rights and a protective order requiring the father to stay away from the little girl both at home and at school.  Through the course of the proceedings, we learned that he would sometimes show up at her school asking to take his daughter out of class.  Thanks to perceptive and invested educators, those efforts were normally blocked.

Almost every time I met with my client, she cried.  Tears of frustration, guilt, fear, and sorrow.  She lived as a part of an underclass for which many government services we take for granted, like the protection of police, were not available.  Where many of us see "protect and serve", she would see a trip back to near certain death and destitution.  It is almost inconceivable for any of us to think of a circumstance where we are forced to live with someone who is actively abusing our child, yet that is not unique for the immigrant underclass.

Council Bill 9-2017 operates to disconnect the administration of civil immigration laws from the protections offered by local law enforcement.  It will have a practical and meaningful impact on the lives of people like my former client.  If I could have assured this woman that engaging the police would not implicate deportation, not only would her child be protected, but all of our children would be less vulnerable due to criminal prosecution of a suspected offender.  And this extends to all aspects of civil society.  Imagine being in a hit-and-run car accident where the only witness is an undocumented immigrant.  Do you want them to be discouraged from completing a witness statement?  Do you want them to be afraid of interacting with police?

I am empathetic to those who share different views on this legislation.  There is a firm construct in all of our minds that laws are there to be followed and immigration law is no different.  However, we forget that immigration law is civil law - the same as traffic laws and other offenses that result in a fine.  In fact, deportation is not intended to be a punishment; it is just the manner in which the law is applied and open to revision.

We can, and should, have a vigorous discussion about what laws like CB 9-2017 mean for our community, but we need to begin with the premise that children should be safe, regardless of their parentage.  If CB 9-2017 makes them more safe, then any alternative needs to carry that floor.  There are experiences that are completely foreign to us, such as this.  That does not diminish their legitimacy or their need to be addressed.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.