Home » Tara Ford, Rebellious Lawyer

Tara Ford, Rebellious Lawyer

Here is the latest from Tara Ford:

Lack of common sense may have put teen on track to fail

“Most parents would be horrified if their child was taken away in handcuffs for routine classroom misbehavior. The mother of a 13-year-old Cleveland Elementary School student in Albuquerque certainly was when her son was arrested for burping during class.”


“Yet, in a recent editorial, the Journal suggests that it was somehow frivolous for her to seek the court’s help to right a system that sees nothing wrong with jailing a child for burping. However, as the Journal’s editorial board no doubt already knows, the courts are where we decide many important issues that pertain to civil rights and education.”

“Through public education, we teach children how to be part of our society. In the classroom appropriately focused on academic growth, teachers inevitably instruct their students on how to sit, pay attention and meet sensible expectations about how to succeed in class.”

“When students make inappropriate jokes, interrupt, throw spit wads and, yes, fake burp, it is the job of our public education system to help them learn how to behave better rather than worse. Indeed, responding to such misbehavior is teaching – and it can be teaching even more valuable than administering a spelling test.”

“Every day, all across the nation, classroom teachers take children aside when needed to teach them proper behavior or to give them extra academic support. This is not disruption of the educational process, it is education itself.”

“Calling in law enforcement to address routine misbehavior is not just poor judgment, it threatens the foundation of one of our most valued public responsibilities. This case is not simply about a 13-year-old jokester who acted as class clown by burping in class. The reach of this case extends much further to countless future New Mexican schoolchildren who will undoubtedly make mistakes, carry themselves inappropriately and act irresponsibly, but who by no measure deserve to be arrested, detained and saddled with a criminal record so early in their young lives.”

“Empirical evidence demonstrates that children of color and children with disabilities are much more likely than other children to be subject to illegal arrests. As a result, our most vulnerable children have even less access to the public education they require to succeed.”

“Worse, instead of helping children imagine themselves in college or gainfully employed, unlawful arrests entangle youth in our criminal justice system. And, again, evidence proves these entanglements correlate with later going to jail or prison. Honest law enforcement officers will acknowledge this truth in a heartbeat.”

“When such important rights are at stake, judicial review is essential. Access to judicial authority is our best hope for holding public officials to account….”

“In this case, the government failed to correct itself. In response to commonplace middle school misbehavior, neither the school administrator nor the officer used basic common sense and we maintain that they failed to meet their legal obligations to this student.”

“Courts guard against abuse of power, ensuring that individual rights are not trampled. The Journal got it wrong; making sure children have access to public education deserves judicial review.”

For the entire article published in the Albuquerque Journal, click here.

Here is an interesting new essay by Tara Ford:

In the Land of Startups and Stanford, Where’s the Support for Kids?

“We made a family move to Palo Alto, California nearly 3 years ago, when our daughter Zoe was 13.  Relocation is hard, especially when you love your home and we loved New Mexico.  Still, my husband and I hoped that the move to a new community would broaden Zoe’s exposure to the world, offering her a chance to meet new people, find beauty in new places, and expand her sense of possibilities.

The move from New Mexico, with the highest child poverty rate in the nation, to Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, has been disorienting.  Three years later, we are still adjusting to the Teslas, the tech talk, and the businesses focused on meeting the individual desires of each consumer (from individually brewed coffee, to ice cream made to order while you wait, to nearly anything you want to buy being delivered directly to your home in a matter of hours).  We now live in the world of startups and Stanford.  We quickly learned that with all these privileges, Palo Alto, like other communities, is struggling to figure out how to support kids.

Our new community was devastated in the 2014-2015 school year when 5 youth died by suicide. We are losing our children. But not just to suicide.  All children face serious challenges at times – parents divorce, teenagers break up, children are bullied, school demands seem unmanageable. Prevention and early intervention services are essential for all children. And mental health issues start early, 50% by the time students reach the age of 14. More than 1 in 5 children and adolescents have or will have a mental health condition.

Helping children means having a system of supports, including mental health services, available to children when needed so that they can manage life’s difficulties. And the earlier the better, because we know that early intervention for mental health conditions matters, just like it does for any other health condition. Mental health services are especially vital for children with serious mental health conditions. 70% of youth that commit suicide have a mental illness that may or may not have been treated in the past.

How do we best protect our children? When children falter, we need a system of care to be there to catch them. What would a coordinated mental health care system for our children look like?  From a child’s perspective, it means that when a child needs help, the right services are readily accessible. The system that touches nearly all children is our education system.  It is the widest safety net.

Our public schools already have a responsibility to identify when children have mental health needs that are impacting them at school. California has seen a significant change in how mental health services are provided to students. In 2011, the state shifted a 25 year practice of formally requiring school districts and counties to work together to ensure mental health services were provided as needed.   Now, the responsibility for providing mental health services to students falls squarely on schools. And as recent studies have shown, kids are losing out. According to the California State Auditor, although approximately 700,000 children in California could be classified with serious emotional disturbance, only up to 120,000 students receive mental health related services through special education from their schools.  While not every student with a mental health condition needs services in schools, many do.

For the past 20 years I have represented children with mental health challenges and their families to help them access appropriate educational services.  Advocating for children who need mental health services in school, I have gotten used to some common refrains:  “teachers go to school so they can  teach, not address all the ills facing children,” “schools are already overburdened,” “schools don’t have the right expertise,”  “we educate, not treat.”  These justifications amount to a mistaken belief on the part of schools that responding to mental health needs is “not our job.”  But we know unmet mental health needs impact learning.  We also know that teachers need to have sufficient mental health resources available to help them understand and respond to the needs of students in their classes.  When schools fail to adequately invest in mental health services, teachers are less able to teach students and students are less able to learn.

To be sure, schools cannot solve this problem alone.  Because schools have not historically embraced the responsibility to provide mental health services to students, it is imperative that schools partner with high quality mental health providers to help them better identify and respond to students who need support.  Partnerships are also critical because children, youth and their families need mental health services to address issues outside of school as well.  Our children need a high quality system of mental health services.

We live in the land of startups and Stanford.  It is time for us to collectively use our region’s spirit of innovation and creativity to invest in a system of mental health services for children.  Schools need to be leaders in this effort.  As a community, it is essential that we support schools in developing the partnerships needed to provide mental health services to students and to advance a vision for a larger system of services for children.  Last month, Young Minds Advocacy honored Chloe Sorenson, a Gunn high school student for her leadership in addressing mental health issues in her school and community. In accepting her award, Chloe urged us to increase awareness for mental health and expand school services.  In Chloe’s words: “When we empower youth and give them access to quality care, lives are saved.” ”

Click for the entire article on Young Minds Advocacy here.

Tara Ford, J.D.

Co-Founder and Attorney

Pegasus Legal Services for Children

Albuquerque, NM

Tara is the Co-Founder of Pegasus Legal Services for Children. She has been involved in children’s legal issues for over twenty years, providing representation to children and their caregivers even while at Stanford Law School. Tara is a frequent speaker at national and state conferences regarding the important role of education in children’s lives; she has often taught as an adjunct faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Law and she regularly works with state and community stakeholders to develop policies that support children in New Mexico. In 2009, Tara provided consultation services to the International Medical Corps in Jordan to provide recommendations regarding needs of children living in institutions, either as a result of dependency or delinquency.


Here is a timely article by Tara Ford, #RebelliousLawyering Organizer par excellence, Legal Director and Founder of Pegasus Legal Services for Children.

Read Tara’s article here in its entirety: We need to stop hitting kids as ‘discipline’.  Excerpted from the Albuquerque Journal:

“Even when corporal punishment does not leave physical marks, it negatively impacts children. Research shows that such punishment activates the stress response system in children. Its use impairs the parent-child relationship and is associated with worse mental health outcomes for children. The government spends millions of dollars to provide treatment for children who have been exposed to trauma either through direct abuse or by witnessing others being hit. Yet our legal system continues to maintain this ambiguous line attempting to differentiate spanking from abuse. A child-centered perspective leaves little room for debate: corporal punishment harms children.”

“Because so many Americans support the use of corporal punishment, it seems unjust to prosecute and suspend Peterson. Instead, his case should galvanize us to devote resources to ensure parents are provided with information about the harms associated with the use of physical discipline. It is time for a public campaign against the use of corporal punishment.”


See these articles about Tara Ford’s work:

Echoing Green Profile on Tara Ford

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA)

New Mexico bans spanking of children in schools

National Association of Counsel for Children

Corporal Punishment Persists in U.S. Schools

Legal Safeguards for Children In New Mexico

Understanding New Mexico’s School To Prison Pipeline:  What The Data Are Beginning To Show

Spanking Outlawed in New Mexico: No Ifs, Ands or Butts


New Mexico Bans Spanking Children In Schools

Supreme Court Boards, Committees and Commissions

New Mexico Association for Infant Mental Health

New Mexico Voices for Children

University of New Mexico Law School


Taosenos Win Battle against Kit Carson Electric for PRC Hearing


Special Education Issues Facing Children In Custody

Legal Issues Related to Education of Students with Mental Health Diagnoses

Victor’s Victory

Children’s Health, Mental Health, and the Law

 Visitation Rights in New Mexico

The Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and the School System: Understanding Public School Law

Read this insightful description of Tara Ford’s Rebellious Lawyering work:


“Tara studied at Stanford Law School with Gerald López who developed a model of ‘rebellious’ lawyering that draws heavily on translation practices. See generally, Gerald P. López, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice (1992). According to López, rebellious lawyers engage in ‘bicultural and bilingual translation’ moving ‘in two directions, creating both a meaning for the legal culture out of the situations that people are living and a meaning for people’s practices out of the legal culture.’ López exhorts progressive lawyers to engage in translation practices that ‘transgress’ established practices and power relations.”

“We begin by using the concepts of essentialism and anti-essentialism as our theoretical backdrop. We then examine the borderland theories of Gloria Anzaldúa…as a way out of this dichotomy. We offer the borderlands as a liminal space, a space filled with potentiality….”

“We discuss strategies of transculturation mapped along ‘literal and figurative borders where a ‘person’ is crisscrossed by multiple identities.’ Border identities inspire our imagination and lure us with the potentiality of ‘a plural self, one that thrives on ambiguity and multiplicity, on affirmation of differences, not on polarized and polarizing notions of identity, culture, race, or gender’….”

“The border metaphor, with its imbedded notions of multiple nationalities, cultures, and languages, motivates us to consider methodologies drawn from ethnography and literary translation…. We propose the concept of the Malinche Paradox to problematize the roles of Outsiders who seek to deploy the discursive tools and tactics of the dominant culture, only to produce unexpected and, at times, unwanted outcomes.”

Tara Ford… [came] to our clinic class to lead a discussion on problem solving. She told us about Frank Baca, an institutionalized client who was developmentally dis/abled, wheelchair bound, and almost completely non-verbal. Tara described Frank as communicating through gestures that she interpreted to mean yes and no.”

“The immediate problem that Tara brought to the class’s attention was his desire to move out of his current group placement with an older, non-ambulatory population and into another facility with a younger, ambulatory, but potentially unruly group of residents. Frank had lived in this facility at a time when he had more mobility, and Tara speculated that perhaps his desire to return was motivated in part by his memories of that time. Such a move, however, would put him into an environment where he might be in some significant danger. Tara emphasized that making this move was a preference that Frank had been expressing over a long period of time and that he had persisted in doing so despite strong opposition from his caretakers.”

“There was, in actuality, a third option. Frank was potentially eligible to move out of the institution. A class action had been filed by Protection and Advocacy lawyers arguing that the residents were best served by being “de-institutionalized.” In acting on Frank’s expressed wishes, Tara was resisting both her agency and Frank’s caretakers. She worried that she might be playing God in some way.”

“Tara posed this ethical predicament to the class: should she act on his desire to move and possibly place him in danger or should she thwart his desire to move and keep him from physical danger? We explored different strategies for achieving his objective and yet preserving his safety, such as adding a buzzer to his wheelchair so that he could summon help when necessary. Towards the end of the class, Tara explained that her understanding of personal autonomy and decision-making includes the right to put oneself at risk. She noted that, despite considerable limitations, Frank was, nonetheless, entitled to make decisions for and about himself. As his lawyer, she saw herself as protecting this right. Her role included explaining options to him as well as she could and then helping him implement his choice. I admired her ability to interpret this problem in a way that emphasized the client’s prerogatives without taking herself off the hook. If she acted on Frank’s wishes and he was injured, it was clear that she would be, or at least would feel, to some extent, responsible.”

“This case raised the difficult problem of understanding and interpreting the client’s story when the client does not share the lawyer’s communication system. One of the principles of interviewing we had stressed with the class was that leading questions are ineffective in eliciting the client’s story. We had emphasized the importance of open-ended questions. Yet here was a client who communicated through subtle facial cues, grimaces for no and half-smiles for yes, a client who could only communicate by responding to leading questions. Adroit interviewing involved asking and re-asking questions that could be answered by gestures “meaning” yes or no.”

“What does it mean to be true to the client’s story when the story is largely the lawyer’s construction? How do we represent the minimally communicative client? Tara Ford used Frank’s profound silence and his ambiguous nonverbal cues to help us think rigorously about her representation of him.”

“After class, I asked Tara about the cultural and linguistic contexts of the representation. I wanted to know whether the client was interviewed only in English. Given that the interview employed leading questions, were those questions in English? Did he in fact speak Spanish? What language or languages did his family use in speaking with him? Tara, intrigued through training  and experience with this aspect of the representation, invited me to assist her.”

“At least that’s the way I interpreted our relationships at the beginning. Being a Latina lawyer with years of experience involving issues of cultural difference, I thought I brought some expertise on the representation of Outsider clients. Little did I realize that I was entering the borderlands where identities are fluid, meanings are contingent, and theories, methodologies, and techniques are, at worst, irrelevant and at best, remolded.”

“…. I accompanied Tara to meet Frank. The institution is located some forty-five minutes from the law school. The drives there and back allowed Tara and me to talk about the “facts” of Frank’s case as well as his options. But there is something about talking in a car, a private and enclosed space, in which the two people are facing forward, avoiding eye contact. Car talk can allow more immediate and greater intimacy. And so it was that we were able to talk about our personal lives as well as about race and racism, about our successes and our qualms.”

“To arrive at the buildings that are Frank’s world, we had to enter through a guard station. Tara, and I as her guest, would be logged in and later, logged out. As we waited at the receptionist’s desk while Frank’s whereabouts were confirmed, our nostrils were filled with the odors of institutionalization, a formaldehyde-like smell that reminded both of us of the specimen jars found in high school biology classes. The walls were, of course, green, painted at a time when psychological theories about the placating effect of wall color on emotions had come into vogue.”

“Frank is in his mid-40s, balding slightly with graying hair. He sports a baseball cap. He has little use of his hands which he holds in loose fists on the blue vinyl tray of his wheel chair. He has a strong gaze and an infectious smile. The staff members frequently greet him with hugs and other gestures of affection.”

“On that first visit, it was clear that Tara and he had a strong bond. I observed Tara asking questions which Frank responded to with subtle but, from my perspective, consistent facial expressions. Tara introduced me and I explained that, like Tara, I too was a lawyer. I asked him if he wanted me to talk to him in Spanish. He turned and looked at me. His face smiled.”

“On our next visit we met with his legal guardian. We explained that I was a law professor and that we were trying to add a cultural and linguistic dimension to Frank’s representation. Frank had been cared for at home through his late teens, and it was clear that his ability to make and maintain friendships had been nurtured by his family. We spent time trying to find information about his family, about his likes and dislikes, and about his preferences.”

“After the meeting we had some idea that Frank was responding enthusiastically to hearing both Spanish and English in our interactions with him. He liked country music as well as Mexican music. We urged the staff to make sure that his room featured family mementos, such as greeting cards, and to hang family pictures where he could see them. We also wanted to require the dietician to add fresh green chili to his diet. While Frank liked the canned variety, fresh green chili was a favorite dish.”

“On one of our first visits, his guardian, Tara, Frank and I went to the snack bar. While preparing Frank a hot dog, we asked him if he wanted mustard. He grimaced. “Ketchup?” Again he grimaced. “Mayonnaise?” Frank nodded. “You don’t really want mayonnaise, do you?” Again he nodded, able to express his preference even when resisted by the three of us with words and with our assumed norms about condiments.”

“We came to realize that he understood more than the staff gave him credit for. On one occasion, a family member interjected that Frank had learned his colors and numbers while living at home and that he probably still remembered them. He demonstrated by using M & M candies, helping Frank count and sort the colors. The bonds of love and understanding between the client and his family transcended words.”

“We brought a disposable camera to take pictures and to begin an album for him. As Frank left, he carefully vocalized a “ba.” We were sure he was saying goodbye. We were, after all, competent translators. Weren’t we?”

“…Tara and I visited Frank again. We had developed the pictures we’d taken and we made an album for him to have in his room. We all had sodas, and Tara fed him a hot dog. I labelled the pictures in the album, talking all the while in English and Spanish. We discussed the upcoming staff meeting to decide when he would be moving to his preferred location, it now being a question of when and not if.”

“I am suggesting that teachers and students learn to re-present themselves through a form of border writing in which the narratives they construct for themselves in relation to the Other are effectively deterritorialized politically, culturally, and linguistically, so that the meaning-tropes through which subjectivity becomes constructed fails to dominate the Other.”

In analyzing her role as his lawyer in order to resolve the ethical dilemma she found herself in, Tara Ford brought an appreciation of the situation in which Frank found himself. Tara was able to use resonance, to go beyond words, to transcend the void left by Frank’s wordlessness, to attempt to vindicate what she concluded was at stake: namely, his right to make decisions for himself, even, and perhaps most importantly, when such decisions might put him in danger. His humanity, his personhood, and his selfhood were wrapped up in that decision-making right.”

“Frank is very adept at establishing relationships. He is well liked by his caretakers and by the other people living at the institution. Frank is also an able communicator. I observed him at meetings with many participants. His limitations, both mental and physical, are formidable and undeniable, but he can and does make his preferences known. He also knows how to persist, to wait and outwait those who would thwart his desires.”

“To an extent greater than other clients, Frank has imbedded himself in my consciousness and in my heart. He has affected the manner in which I relate to others. I would like to think that I listen better to others’ words because of my short exposure to his valiant and successful attempts to communicate without words.”

“Frank has, from most people’s perspectives, lived a stunted life, cabined by his limitations and isolated within the institutional setting in which he exists. He has, however, affected Tara, myself, and others in fundamental ways. I now see my role in Frank’s re/presentation was that of observer and learner. He and Tara had much to teach me.”

“I have never had much contact with persons with extensive and obvious dis/abilities. I had never been in an institution such as the one in which this client resides. I came to understand only very recently that, for me, the institution was a borderland. I entered with all the trepidations of the clinical students who first visit the colonias along the Mexican border where our clinic provides legal services to a nonmigratory farmworker population. The institutional setting was alien to me and I entered feeling denuded of my usual defenses. It was unsettling and destabilizing.”

“Multicultural experiences are often accompanied by feelings of discomfort, of being at risk. If we can allow ourselves to remain or to return to whatever triggers this discomfort, we can begin to store the experiences that can help us understand Others.”

“Tara and Frank allowed me to witness and learn from their relationship. They were my guides into the borderlands. They taught me with their patient and gentle interactions. Tara taught me with her insightful observations about staff dynamics, legal strategies, and with her discussions about power, privilege and their evanescent presence. She was an adept interpreter of silence, of gesture. Frank taught me with his courage as manifested in his persistence. He taught me that the desire to communicate overcomes wordlessness. He taught me to “listen” to the expression of the face and the intensity of the eyes. He taught me that human bridges of appreciation are built with smiles, shrugs, and, at times, the tears of frustration. Tara and Frank took me into the borderlands and served as my translators. I am immensely richer for having gone.”


%d bloggers like this: