Friday, August 13, 2010
Illegal immigrant sues over lost custody of child in Mississippi
Mississippi officials conspired to take the infant of an illegal immigrant from Mexico so the girl could be adopted by a white couple, a civil rights group charged Thursday in a federal lawsuit.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said Cirila Baltazar Cruz was separated from her daughter, Ruby, for a year before her child was returned to her in 2009 after the intervention of the group.
Cruz had the baby at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula in November 2008. Two days after the child was born she was taken from her mother when the Mississippi Department of Human Services deemed Cruz unfit, according to the lawsuit.
Cruz - who spoke no English and little Spanish and could not read or write - was interviewed by a hospital interpreter. The interpreter spoke Spanish, not Chatino, a dialect indigenous to Cruz's native Oaxaca in rural Mexico, the group's lawsuit alleges.
After talking with Cruz, the interpreter told one of the immigrant's relatives that Cruz was trading sex for housing and wanted to give the child up for adoption, according to the lawsuit. Cruz said in the court filing that she tried to explain to the interpreter she worked in a Chinese restaurant and lived in an apartment.
"When they tried to take my baby away I felt that I was done wrong, and I was very angry. It was a very painful experience for me and for my baby. This is why I want other people to know, because I don't want anyone else to go through the same experience," Cruz said in a statement released Thursday by the SPLC. Cruz is back in Mexico with her daughter.
The lawsuit, which names MDHS, Singing River Health System and others, seeks monetary damages and alleges the state officials conspired to deny Cruz and her child their constitutional rights to family integrity, said Mary Bauer, the law center's legal director. It also alleges Cruz was targeted by state officials because of her race and nationality.
"It's hard to put a value on losing your daughter for year," Bauer said. "It's one of the most outrageous cases we've ever seen."
The child was placed in the home of Wendy and Douglas Tynes, two attorneys who lived in Ocean Springs and were foster parents. The complaint said the Tynes were seeking to adopt. The suit alleges MDHS officials conspired with a youth court judge and the Tynes to keep Cruz from her daughter so she could be adopted by the couple.
Messages left at the Tynes' offices weren't immediately returned.
Even before the lawsuit, the case had drawn national and international attention, prompting a federal review and an agreement that requires Mississippi to notify the Mexican consulate when similar situations occur.
MDHS declined to comment.
Hospital spokesman Richard Lucas said he hadn't seen the lawsuit Thursday. He said the hospital followed proper procedures.
"For us to be included in such a complaint is frivolous and entirely inappropriate," Lucas said. "Our mission includes providing care for all who come to us in need, and we did exactly that in caring for Ms. Cruz, who came to us in distress ..."
Advocates say Cruz's case is an example of a nationwide problem that is hard to document because it involves illegal immigrants who are often deported and most youth proceedings are confidential. Bauer said the law center had received calls for assistance from immigrants in other states.
For some immigrants, it's difficult to regain parental rights once they're lost. Language barriers, family court confidentiality laws and deportation are among the obstacles.
Immigrants' rights attorneys say the problem is that federal laws govern undocumented immigrants, but their children, who are often U.S. citizens because they were born here, are under state jurisdiction.
Richard Rocha, deputy press secretary for ICE, said immigrants who are being deported are supposed to retain their parental rights to make custody decisions for their children.
"If custody assistance is required, parents are able to coordinate with the proper state agencies," Rocha said in an e-mail.
That may be ICE's policy, but states usually don't adhere to it, said Marcia Zug, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who has researched the issue for more than a year and documented about 20 cases.
"The separation is really the result of policies of state welfare agencies," Zug said. "States are highly skeptical of whether it's in the best interest of these children to leave with deported parents rather than grow up in America."
In an October 2009 letter obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, U.S. Health and Human Services officials informed Mississippi DHS Executive Director Donald Thompson about the findings of a federal investigation of the Cruz case.
Joseph J. Bock, acting associate commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, cited a lack of reasonable efforts to prevent the child's removal and that the agency used Spanish interpreters when it was known Cruz spoke Chatino.
Bock also said state officials didn't do enough to locate Cruz's relatives to place the child with them.
"The MDHS staff interviewed did not see these issues as problematic. This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident," Bock wrote.