The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services has signed an agreement with the Consulate General of Mexico that could become a template for engaging with the state’s diplomatic corps to better serve children from foreign nationalities.
The memorandum of understanding signed March 15 commits the division to notify the consulate when a Mexican or Mexican-American minor comes into its custody. It also requires the division to provide consular access and ongoing communication on the case, as outlined in bilateral agreements and in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Much of the agreement rehashes existing responsibilities and clarifies the child’s rights under international law, but division Commissioner Tom Rawlings told Global Atlanta the process of formalizing it has had a galvanizing effect on the division’s existing partnership with the consulate.
“Especially for our Latin American friends, it’s very much a cultural statement when we come together,” Mr. Rawlings said about the signing at the consulate, noting that the division has made clear efforts to reach out to Hispanic communities through nonprofits like the Latin American Association and Ser Familia.
Javier Díaz de León, the consul general of Mexico, said the signing of the nine-page document at the consulate was emblematic of the friendship between the consulate and the division as they seek the best interests of children.
“Renewing vows will allow this partnership to continue to grow, which, in turn, will translate into improved case-handling and outcomes for many families,” said Mr. Díaz.
One of DFCS’s clear goals is to build trust by clarifying to potentially reticent families of all nationalities that the state agency is not a Trojan horse for federal immigration authorities.
“We are not interested in immigration status; we can place a child with relatives regardless of their immigration status. We have done so many times,” Mr. Rawlings said, noting that in many cases, DFCS has informed undocumented caregivers that the children qualify for services like health insurance and food aid.
Migrant minors — those under 18 years old — only come into the division’s care in extreme cases when parents can no longer provide care and no other relatives are available to take up the responsibility. In some cases, DFCS is called in when a parent is deported or arrested; in others, when one falls ill or dies.
“The times when we work closest with the consulates are when we have a situation that is more severe,” Mr. Rawlings said.
Consulates can help break down the language barrier, overcome cultural hurdles, locate relatives and liaise with the home government.
That last part is vital when the division is tasked with reuniting a minor with a parent in Mexico or another country, as happened recently in a case where a child’s father was deported and the mother was involved in a crime in Georgia.
Without a working relationship with the consulate, the temptation would have been for case workers — even those with the necessary language skills — to give up rather than to try and navigate an esoteric maze of regulations in another country.
“One of the things we have not done a good job in the past is making sure we are looking for that father back in Mexico, looking for those relatives, considering whether or not we can reunite the children (with them),” Mr. Rawlings said.
The memorandum helps codify coordination on items like the home studies that are required before the child can be released from the division’s care.
“It enables our staff to know how to work with the consulate, how to contact the consulate and make sure that we are all working towards the same end,” the director said.
Even before the MOU, the division conducted joint training with the consulates of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in Atlanta. Consulates have also helped train Georgia juvenile court judges on how to request a home evaluation in Mexico and beyond. (Mr. Rawlings noted that the division does not get involved with custody battles or the placement of minors arriving unaccompanied at U.S. borders, an issue for immigration authorities.)
Mr. Rawlings sees the Mexican agreement as a model not only for future agreements with other Latin American consulates, but also with virtually all the more than 70 countries that have diplomatic representation in the state.
“If we are working with a family that has roots in author country or that has come directly form another country, we have not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to make those families feel as comfortable as possible, and the consulates can go a long way in providing that sort of hometown support.”
Given the large resettled refugee population in places like Clarkston, and the growing diversity of the state’s foreign-born community, the task is growing in importance.
DFCS gives a pay bump to case workers with demonstrated foreign language proficiency. So far, 87 have passed proficiency tests in one of 10 languages, which largely reflect either large immigrant communities or groups that have been resettled in Georgia after gaining refugee status, asylum or temporary protected status after a natural disaster like the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Testing is or will be offered in the following languages, according to DFCS (clarifications added by Global Atlanta):
2. Haitian Creole
3. French (spoken in West and Central Africa, as well as parts of the Caribbean)
4. Burmese (spoken in Myanmar — also known as Burma)
5. Dari (spoken in Afghanistan)
6. Pashto (spoken in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan)
7. Amharic (Ethiopia)
10. Karen (spoken by a persecuted minority group in Myanmar)
Consulates seeking to sign similar memoranda of understanding with the Division of Family and Children Services can contact Christopher Perlera, senior director of strategic partnerships and messaging, at email@example.com.
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