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Immigrants in court grapple with old vs. new world rules

WBFO News file photo

Every day, an increasing number of new Americans from nations, geographic areas, and language groups walk into the court buildings in downtown Buffalo and come to grips with the legal system. Often, they are from countries with no functioning legal system or one which they say can't be trusted.

Many of the most sensitive cases come to Family Court, from misbehaving teens to corporal punishment. Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin remembered one case of a mother caught between her old world and her new one.

"She fell to her knees, started sobbing and put her hands together in prayer and asked me not to take away her children because she assumed that she would never see them again. That's incredibly impactful as a judge," said Bloch Rodwin.

Bloch Rodwin said she also has to deal with the attitude of deference to the standards and rules of the former country.

"If it's a safety issue, I'm going to do what's going to keep the children safe. If a father breaks off a switch from a tree and beats his children because that's how he was raised in Southeast Asia, I may have to remove those children. I'm not going to give cultural deference to the fact that he was brought up that you could use a tree and beat your children until there are welts on them," she added.

The judge said she has had cases of immigrants with more than one wife and more than one set of children. Bloch Rodwin said there are educational sessions for immigrants explaining the old rules of the old countries don't apply here.

Credit wbasnywny.org
Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin is working to help immigrants adapt to the U.S. court system.

"They may be a litigant, a respondent, for example, in a domestic violence petition. Maybe domestic violence or the use of violence to control the behavior of your spouse is accepted where you were born and raised. Yet, we have an obligation, both we the system, we the attorneys, we the judges to let them know that their wives have a right not to be hurt or controlled through violence or the threat of violence," said Bloch Rodwin.

The judge said this isn't easy or simple, with the multitude of languages and situations where interpreters are passing the process back and forth among lawyers and participants, and potentially lawyers for children.

"It takes more time, there's no question. But, it's so important. Everything we're trying to do is going to fail if their is no understanding of what our ultimate goal is, which is to create a safe environment and then pull out. And, if we can't create a safe environment, to find permanent safe environments," she said.

Bloch Rodwin said immigrant parents can have a lot of difficulty with children who want the rules of the new country and not the old, with things like mini-skirts, dating, makeup and bad behavior.

"You can't beat your daughter if they do that. You can certainly have discipline but you can't extend it to physical discipline that affects their safety. So, that's the dividing line. No one is being told that their way of parenting is wrong. That's not at all what we're saying," said Bloch Rodwin.

Bloch Rodwin, who is a mother of two, said she understands the tensions of parental rules and children testing those limits.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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