Dalton: Guatemalan couple's custody case drags on

Dalton: Guatemalan couple's custody case drags on

February 18th, 2012 by Perla Trevizo in News

Domitina Mendez holds photos of two of her children, Ever Mendez, left, age 5, and Debbi Mendez, age 3. She and her husband, Ovidio Mendez, are Guatemalan indigenous Mayans who lost custody of their five children when the Georgia Department of Child Protective Services took them in 2008. In June a Whitfield County judge permanently removed their parental rights in part because they don't speak English and the judge felt the parrents couldn't take care of the children's special needs and dozens of monthly doctor's visits. The court battle continues.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

DALTON, Ga. - A local attorney plans to appeal a judge's decision to deny a motion for a new trial for a Guatemalan couple who lost custody of their children almost four years ago.

"We just have to hope for the best," said Richard Murray, who is representing Ovidio and Domitina Mendez, who have five children ages 3 to 6. All of the children have severe physical disabilities.

Whitfield County Judge Connie Blaylock denied a motion to reconsider terminating the Mendezes' parental rights.

"It's just sad," said Ovidio Mendez when reached by phone Thursday night. "But we will keep fighting."

The Mendezes' case is one of the most litigated cases in the county's Juvenile Court, Bruce Kling, special assistant attorney general for Whitfield County Department of Family and Children Services, told the judge Thursday.

The couple has so far spent more than $3,000 in legal fees, not including the legal representation paid for the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta.

The couple lost custody of their children, all of whom have severe physical disabilities, in 2008. Last year, Blaylock terminated their rights in what she said was in the best interest of the children.

"It is the sad truth that neither of these parents will ever be able to meet the extreme special needs of these five children on a day- to-day basis," wrote Blaylock in her 2011 decision.

"The children are in need of and deserving of a permanent home," she said.

The foster parent who has had the children from the beginning wants to adopt all five children, the judge wrote.

Murray argued this week that the judge should reconsider her decision. He asked for another psychological evaluation with an interpreter who speaks Mam, one of Guatemala's 23 dialects. Spanish is not the couple's native language; however, all court proceedings and psychological evaluations took place with a Spanish-language interpreter.

"Things do get lost in translation," Murray told the judge.

But Kling said the couple had been asked if the interpreter was adequate and they never asked for a Mam interpreter.

"They always had a Spanish interpreter and they never complained about the quality," he said.

Murray described the couple as "meek."

"They are not going to speak up," he said Friday.

At the end Blaylock sided with Kling.

"Most telling," she wrote, "the parents failed to ask for or bring a Mam interpreter for [Thursday's] hearing."

The Mendezes' case has attracted national and international attention.

International groups such as the Organization of American States, which promotes social and economic development, the Guatemalan Embassy and the Latin American Association have sent letters of support. A trust fund was opened to help the couple care for their children.

Change.org launched an online petition asking Blaylock to reconsider. The group gathered 1,570 signatures out of a goal of 2,500.

Murray said he wants to take the case to an appellate court because the previous attorney failed to file an appeal on the original case.

Rafael Novielli, vice consul at the Guatemalan Consulate in Atlanta, said the consulate stands behind the family and will continue fighting on their behalf.

"We know they love their children," he said Thursday outside the courthouse. "They are trapped in a legal situation I don't think they were familiar with."

Another argument made during the termination hearing was that the parents couldn't legally get a driver's license to take the children to the 75 appointments they average in a month because they are not authorized to be in the country.

Consul General Beatriz Illescas has said she believed the lack of legal status of the parents and their inability to speak English, were factors that led to the termination of their parental rights.

The couple is working to legalize their status through an immigration attorney, Murray told the judge, but it all depends on getting the custody of their children back.

But Blaylock said the legal status doesn't change why the children were removed in the first place and it's not sufficient to reconsider her previous decision.