| Athens -- Its been almost a year since the Alabama Department of Human Resources took Javier Alonzo from his 17-year-old mother Marta. DHR claimed it took the baby for medical reasons others say it was little more than kidnapping.
Over the course of the last year, Marta and Javier have been at the center of what reads more like the plot of a bad t.v. movie than a real life story. The two were placed in separate foster homes; theyre still in the foster system, but now theyre living with the same family. The duos plight became front-page news when an Athens doctor went public with his worry that DHR was going to adopt Javier out to a white, middle class family and then send Marta, an illegal immigrant, back to Guatemala.
"There was every indication he wouldve been adopted."
Helen Rivas is a Latino advocate based in Birmingham. She says DHR had paperwork ready for Javiers adoption not long after the baby was taken. On its official website, DHR does admit to pursuing adoption, but as part of what it calls concurrent planning something to fall back on if Marta was considered an unfit mother. Javiers court appointed attorney Dan Totten says, as far as the court was concerned, adoption was never part of the plan.
"The original plan was always to reunite the mother with the child. The problem became that it took so long and again, you had people with different viewpoints expressing different opinions in the press and that led to a lot of friction, a lot of feelings, a lot of bad feelings between either side."
As if those bad feelings werent enough to complicate the issue allegations began swirling that Marta didnt know what was going on because she wasnt being provided the proper translation.
Marta speaks a Mayan Indian dialect called Kiche and advocates for the teen say that was the ONLY language she had any fluency in when Javier was taken from her. But DHR maintained Marta spoke fluent Spanish.
Before leaving office in December, former DHR Commissioner Bill Fuller issued a gag order on DHR staffers concerning Martas case. But, back in October, Fuller was a guest on Alabama Public Televisions For the Record program where he said Marta spoke Spanish well.
But Helen Rivas disagrees.
"She does not speak Spanish, also does not speak English."
Rivas says it looked to her like Marta wasnt receiving the translation she needed during court proceedings. While Totten does agree with Rivas that Marta didnt really speak much Spanish he says the allegation she never got translation in the courtroom just isnt true. But, he adds, some of the most important things happen outside the courthouse.
"She has always had interpreters at the court proceedings. But the day to day things that have to be done, the information that has to be exchanged, the conversations that have to be made are not done in a courtroom. Theyre done outside the courtroom in day to day living."
Martas story is not unique. Another Guatemalan teen, this time in Florida and also an illegal immigrant, is facing murder charges in the 2002 death of her newborn.
Like Marta, 15-year-old Petrona Tomas speaks a Mayan dialect and at the time of her arrest she spoke next to no Spanish. But that didn't stop authorities in West Palm Beach from questioning her exclusively in Spanish, causing some Latino advocates to worry the teenager didnt understand what she was charged with. Since being jailed, Tomas has been taking Spanish lessons and can now communicate with her lawyers and take part in her defense.
Robert De Posada is the president of the Latino Coalition, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that works to promote Hispanic friendly public policy. He says language is becoming a bigger issue in the United States as immigrants flee rural parts of Central and South America.
"Its just very rare languages and in many cases you cannot expect the U.S. government to have translators on every possible language or even dialect around the world so that is extremely difficult."
De Posada says embassies and consulates need to become more involved in cases like Marta and Petronas.
"I think its going to become extremely important that we put part of the burden on these countries these people are from. Who will have better access to people who understand those languages. These people, whenever these kind of cases occur, that the government, you know contacts these consulates and say we have this case right now and we need your help to provide the translation services we need."
While the language gap is a big obstacle another, possible larger issue, is the cultural gap. De Posada says, unlike most Americans, Latino immigrants often live with extended families huddled under one roof.
Marta was staying with cousins when Javier was taken; the baby had scabies and DHR said the home was a health threat because many other family members also had the illness. Caseworkers also found what they thought was a bruise on Javiers back, it later turned out to be a birthmark common to Guatemalans.
Former DHR commissioner Fuller says the social workers were doing what they thought was best for the little boy. But activist Helen Rivas says thats part of the problem, people thinking they know whats best for others without truly understanding the situation.
"I believe it was a situation of misguided people stepping in to fix a problem that may or may not have existed but which they totally did not understand."
While Marta has been trying to get out of state custody for the last year, it may be the safest place for her right now. She turns 18 at the end of this month and, because of her illegal status, she could be sent back to Guatemala; Javier would stay here because hes legally a U.S. citizen, having been born here. Thats why Totten says, until she gets a green card he wants to keep her in the foster system.
"I want her to be under the protection of the juvenile court, which can keep her until shes 21, I want that done for her own protection. It would be terrible to reunite her with her son without court protection any to have her sent back to Guatemala."
As soon as she gets her green card, which Totten says could be in a couple of months, the two will be out from under the governments thumb.
Rosemary Pennington, February 6, 2004