When 7-year-old Nora Lopez didn’t return home from school late last month, her mom was terrified, desperate, and confused.
“I didn’t know what had happened,” Nora’s mother Basilia Lopez says through a translator. “I thought she had been kidnapped.”
After hours of frantically searching for her daughter, a police officer notified Basilia that Nora had been taken into protective custody because of suspected child abuse. But no one from Nora’s school or the Department of Child Safety had notified Basilia, who speaks only Spanish.
More than three weeks later, Basilia still hasn’t seen her daughter, who is currently in foster care.
“I just want her back,” says Basilia, a 23-year-old single mom who works at a restaurant. “It’s very painful. We’ve never been separated for so long before.”
On Tuesday, more than 25 of Nora's friends, family, and supporters gathered outside of the girl's school to protest the Children’s First Academy of Tempe and DCS for their handling of the case.
The protesters held hand-made signs adorned with Nora's picture and chanted in Spanish. "No somas todos. Nos falta Nora," one man hollered into a megaphone. Roughly translated the phrase means, "We are not all here. Nora is missing."
ManySpanish-speaking parents, like Basilia, face a disadvantage when dealing with DCS, says activists from the Barrio Defense Committee, which organized the protest.
“The whole system is stacked against us,” says Salvador Reza, a civil rights leader with the Barrio Defense Committee. “If someone doesn’t speak English, they are treated as second-class citizens and put at a disadvantage.”
The Arizona-based Barrio Defense Committee is a neighborhood-based group that defends the rights of immigrants, Hispanic and Spanish-speaking residents. In the past, it has campaigned against controversial issues, including Arizona Senate Bill 1070, immigration and racial profiling at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
The committee now is turning its focus on the DCS and is handling 15 cases of Spanish-speaking parents whose children, it says, were improperly removed from their families' custody.
In these cases, parents often were not notified by the agency. Paperwork and information is not provided in Spanish. Additionally, many DCS case managers and state-appointed attorneys are unable to communicate with the families because they only speak English, according to the Barrio Defense Committee.
“One of our main complaints is Spanish-speaking parents are not appointed DCS workers who can speak Spanish,” says Sylvia Herrera, of the Barrio Defense Committee. “Because of the language barrier, there’s no communication about what is going on.”
The DCS didn't immediately return calls from the New Times.
In many cases where the child is removed from their parents' custody, the suspected child abuse is discovered to be unfounded. But in the process, the children are left traumatized by separation from their families.
“The kids go through a lot of suffering. The psychological damage to the kids, and to their parents, is tremendous,” Reza says. “If the children weren’t troubled before, they are after being taken away from their parents.”
The Department of Child Safety, formerly known as Child Protective Services, was restructured in 2014 by then-Governor Jan Brewer after reports of thousands of un-investigated cases. But the reorganized system has not made it any easier for non-English-speaking parents, Reza says.
“The whole system is corrupt. It’s in shambles,” Reza maintains."They changed the name but left everything else the same.”
Reza and Herrera say there needs to be protection for children in cases of suspected abuse. They simply believe that investigators should speak to families through translators, if necessary, before removing children from their homes.
"The system is set up against Spanish-speaking parents," Herrera says. "There needs to be some communication prior to an investigation."
The protest began at Nora's school but concluded with a march to the DCS' offices in Mesa. Nora's grandmother, Christina Flores,says she hopes the gathering sends a message to he state agency.
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“It’s racist— without any explanation or reason they take your child away,” Flores says through a translator. “Why are they doing this to these families?”
Flores and Lopez deny that Nora has suffered any physical abuse. They say the scratches and bruises were from a fall at the park.
Flores says she is devastated that Nora is not with her family and fears the girl will miss Christmas.
“She’s a real loving, caring girl, and I miss her a lot,” Flores says. “We’re very close. We’re a family. But we are not complete because we’re not all here. Nora is missing.”