The Mexican Consul General Javier Diaz de Leon presented the signed Memorandum of Understanding with DFCS Commissioner Tom Rawlings (right) at the consulate on March 15. Photo: DFCS
The Georgian Department of Family and Children’s Services has signed an agreement with the Consulate General of Mexico that could serve as a template for working with the state’s diplomatic corps to better serve children of foreign nationality.
The Memorandum of Understanding, signed on March 15, requires the department to notify the consulate if a Mexican or Mexican-American minor is arrested. In addition, the department must ensure consular access and ongoing communication on the case, as set out in bilateral agreements and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Much of the agreement restores existing accountability and clarifies the rights of the child under international law, but Division Commissioner Tom Rawlings told Global Atlanta that the formalization process has had a positive impact on the division’s existing partnership with the consulate.
“Especially for our Latin American friends, it makes a cultural statement when we come together,” said Rawlings of the consulate signing, noting that the department 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 a symbol of friendship between the consulate and the department as they strive for the best interests of the children.
“Renewing vows will allow this partnership to grow, which in turn will lead to better case handling and better outcomes for many families,” said Díaz.
One of the clear goals of DFCS is to build trust by making it clear to potentially reluctant families of all nationalities that the state agency is not a Trojan horse to federal immigration services.
“We are not interested in immigration status. We can place a child with relatives regardless of their immigration status. We have done this so many times, ”said Rawlings, noting that, in many cases, DFCS has informed undocumented carers that the children are eligible for benefits such as health insurance and food aid.
Minors with a migration background – under 18 years of age – only come into the care of the department in extreme cases, when the parents can no longer provide care and no other relatives are available to take on responsibility. In some cases, DFCS is called when a parent is deported or arrested. in others when one becomes sick or dies.
“The times when we work most closely with the consulates are times when we have a more serious situation,” said Rawlings.
Consulates can help break down the language barrier, overcome cultural barriers, locate relatives and connect with the home government.
This last part is vital if the department is tasked with reuniting a minor with a parent in Mexico or another country, as happened recently in a case where the father of one child was deported and the mother in 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 required language skills – to give up instead of trying to navigate an esoteric maze of regulations in another country.
“One of the things that we haven’t done well in the past is to make sure we find this father in Mexico, look for these relatives, and consider whether or not we can reunite the children (with them),” said Mr. Rawlings said.
The memorandum helps codify the coordination of issues such as home studies that are required before the child can be released from the custody of the department.
“This allows our staff to know how to work with the consulate, how to contact the consulate and make sure we are all working towards the same goal,” said the director.
Even before the letter of intent, the department held joint training courses with the consulates of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in Atlanta. The consulates have also helped train the judges of the Georgia juvenile court on how to apply for a home appraisal in Mexico and beyond. (Mr. Rawlings noted that the department is not involved in custody disputes or the placement of minors arriving unaccompanied at U.S. borders, an issue for immigration officials.)
Mr. Rawlings sees the Mexican agreement not only as a model for future agreements with other Latin American consulates, but also with practically all of the more than 70 countries that have diplomatic missions in the state.
“When we work with a family that has roots in authoring country or comes directly from another country, we not only have the opportunity, but also the responsibility to make these families feel as comfortable as possible, and who Consulates can go a long way in providing this type of hometown support. ”
With the large resettled refugee population in places like Clarkston and the growing diversity of the state’s foreign-born community, the task is becoming increasingly important.
DFCS offers caseworkers with proven foreign language skills a raise. So far, 87 proficiency tests have passed in one of ten languages, reflecting either large immigrant communities or groups relocated to Georgia following a natural disaster such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake after gaining refugee, asylum or temporary protection status.
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 and 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 in Myanmar)
Consulates wishing to sign similar letters of intent with the Department of Family and Children’s Services can contact them Christopher Perlera, Senior Director for Strategic Partnerships and Messaging, at firstname.lastname@example.org.