Protecting Immigrant Children by Protecting Their Parents
Sarah Grey’s note, Expanding the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations: Protecting Children by Protecting Their Parents, appears in the current issue of VJTL. Here, she reflects on why she chose to write on this topic.
The summer after my first year of law school, I decided to work for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS). This agency is tasked, among other things, with investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect, removing children from their homes when necessary, and providing services to try and reunite families when possible. It was through this internship that I first discovered the challenges that immigrant families often face when they come in contact with the child welfare system. I was asked to do some research on the effect of deportation on child welfare proceedings, and as I researched, I found one tragic story after another of families all around the United States needlessly torn apart.
I remember reading about a father whose children were taken into state custody when immigration officials came to detain him. After he was deported, he tried to have his children reunited with him in Mexico, but a judge in the United States terminated the father’s parental rights. The judge thought that the children would be better off staying with their foster parents in the U.S. than they would be living in Mexico. Another memorable story was that of a mother whose rights were terminated after she was deemed to be mentally retarded based on her inability to communicate. When her consulate later got involved in her case, consular officials discovered that the communication barrier had nothing to do with mental retardation. In fact, the problem was caused by the state’s error: it provided the mother with a Spanish interpreter when her native language was actually a lesser-known Mayan language. Thanks to the involvement of her consulate, this mother was able to have the termination of parental rights overturned and be reunited with her children.
When it was time to choose a note topic in August, I still had these stories on my mind. I decided that I wanted to explore ways to protect immigrant families who are involved with the child welfare system. Through my internship at DCS I learned about the trauma that can be caused by permanently separating children from their parents. I felt strongly that families should not be broken apart due to factors, such as language barriers or a lack of cultural understanding, that have nothing to do with the parents’ ability to care for their children. Families deserve the best possible chance to stay together. I chose to focus on amending Article 37 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations because I thought that had the greatest potential for broad international impact, but I would also love to see the United States take steps to increase awareness and improve enforcement of the VCCR domestically.