Lawsuit alleges Singing River, DHS conspired to 'steal' Mexican woman's baby

PASCAGOULA, Mississippi -- A federal lawsuit asking for unspecified damages and greater agency oversight was filed Thursday against the state Department of Human Services and Singing River Health System by the Southern Poverty Law Center over a newborn who was placed in foster care after being born at Singing River Hospital in November 2008.

The girl was reunited in February 2010 with her mother, Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican woman who had been in the country illegally. The pair has since returned to Cruz's native Oaxaca, according to Mary Bauer, the center's legal director.

"She lost a year of her daughter's life and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to her," Bauer said. "I think that it's safe to say that both she and our office are far more concerned that this not happen to another immigrant woman in Mississippi (than about money)."

The hospital had not been served with a lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon, but said that Cruz received exceptional care and was treated with the utmost respect when she came to the hospital. To be included in any complaint, the hospital maintains, is "frivolous and entirely inappropriate."

Singing River referred Cruz's case to DHR at the "appropriate time," and maintains that decision-making authority regarding child welfare is beyond its scope of authority.

"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 an in an emergent situation," said Richard Lucas, vice president of communications, said in a statement.

State DHS declined comment.

The case resulted in a memorandum of understanding between Mississippi and Mexico requiring the state to inform the Mexican government of any similar cases.

Besides the department and hospital system, department employee Vicki Hayes, supervisor Ralph "Matt" Mathews and hospital employee Abigail Medina are named as defendants.

The suit charges that state officials and the hospital conspired to "steal" the baby by making false charges against Cruz that she couldn't refute because she spoke a Mexican dialect and could understand neither Spanish nor English. At the time she gave birth, Cruz was living in an Orchard Road apartment and had reportedly walked to the hospital. Officials determined she lacked sufficient means to care for the baby, and placed the child in custody of a local couple, Wendy and Douglas Tynes, who have since divorced.

According to the center, the Tynes frequently practiced law before the youth court judge who approved removal of the child.

Douglas Tynes had no comment Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Health reunited Mother and child after an investigation and Human Services found that the state failed to comply with several requirements of federal law.

A letter sent from the federal bureau to state DMS Director Donald Thompson in October 2009 pointed to "grave concerns about the handling of the case. "The MDHS staff interviewed did not see these issues as problematic," the letter reads. "This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident."

Bauer said she expects the defendants to be served within the next few days, and they have 20 days to respond.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in August 2009 conducted a review of state department's adoption policies and procedures, according to the letter.

That review alleges that:

•A social worker failed to ensure effective communication with the mother.
•Reasonable efforts to prevent removal of the child, such as assisting the mother in finding suitable and safe housing, were not made.
•Reasonable efforts were not made to identify or contact the mother's relatives.
•Authorities failed to develop a case plan until five months after the child had been removed.

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