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Immigrant fights to keep baby girl


Group says child taken away because of language barrier

Immigration advocates are incensed over a Mexican woman's fight to keep custody of her child after she was reported as an unfit mother two days after giving birth in a Pascagoula hospital.

An e-mail news release sent last week by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance accuses Singing River Hospital and the Mississippi Department of Human Services of "stealing immigrants' babies." The accusation involves Cirila Baltazar Cruz, who gave birth to her daughter, Ruby, Nov. 16 at the hospital.

According to documents obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, staff at the hospital filed a report two days later listing Ruby as a neglected child.

The report says Cruz "was exchanging living arrangements for sex" and planned to adopt out the child before returning to Mexico. The report also noted Cruz "is an illegal immigrant."

Court records obtained by The Clarion-Ledger indicate Cruz is charged with neglecting her child, in part, because "she has failed to learn the English language" and "was unable to call for assistance for transportation to the hospital" to give birth. Her inability to speak English "placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future," according to the document.

In its release, MIRA disputes the accusations leveled against Cruz and says Cruz speaks an indigenous Mexican language, Chatino, spoken by fewer than 50,000 people, and speaks "very little Spanish and no English." The hospital provided only a Spanish-language interpreter, the release says.

Cruz's child was taken from her because of a misunderstanding caused by the language barrier, the MIRA release states.

Singing River Hospital spokesman Richard Lucas said the hospital is "really not pleased" with the pitched tone of MIRA's news release.

"After thoroughly investigating Ms. Cruz's situation, we are very confident that our employees acted appropriately in all phases of her care," he said. "We reported her case to (the Department of Human Services), as we are bound to do by law, and DHS, after its own investigation, made the decision regarding Ms. Cruz and her baby."

Lori Woodruff, deputy administrator of DHS's Family and Children's Services, would not comment specifically on Cruz's case but said it is not the department's policy to remove a child based on the parent's language or immigration status. "The language a person speaks has nothing to do with the outcome of the investigation," she said.

Woodruff said DHS makes a concerted effort to locate appropriate translators to overcome language difficulties. The department is in the final stages of negotiating an agreement with the Mexican consulate to help in such matters, she said.

Singing River and MIRA officials would not comment further on the case because it is in Jackson County Youth Court. Court Facility Administrator Cynthia Wilson said court rules prohibit her or any court official from discussing the case.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is assisting in Cruz's defense, and Mary Bauer, director of the center's Immigrant Justice Project, said the court's gag order prohibits Cruz or her advocates from commenting specifically about the case. However, Bauer said this is not the first time speakers of indigenous languages have found themselves at odds with welfare workers.

In 2004, a county judge in Lebanon, Tenn., ordered a Mexican immigrant who spoke only the Mixtec dialect to learn English or risk losing custody of her 11-year-old daughter. The girl was placed in the care of a white foster family until a Circuit Court judge ordered her placed in her father's care in 2005.

In 2002, a panel of judges in Iowa's Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling to terminate the parental rights of an immigrant couple to their two children, both of whom had special medical needs.

Attorneys for the couple, who spoke Chatino, said they were not afforded translation services and had been unable to adequately defend their rights as parents.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of an indigenous-language speaker was that of Santiago Ventura Morales, a Mixtec speaker who was convicted of murder in Oregon in 1986. In a failed appeal, his attorneys said Morales had been provided only a Spanish interpreter during his trial.

Morales was released from prison in 1991 when his attorneys discovered evidence that another man was behind the murder.

Bauer said immigrants who speak an indigenous language "often they are treated as not very bright Spanish speakers" by state agencies and the courts, she said.

"That's what happened in the case in Tennessee. They had a Spanish-speaking interpreter, but the woman didn't speak much Spanish. It appeared as if she was uninterested in the proceeding or her daughter because she didn't speak up."

Indigenous-language speakers are not an insignificant part of the immigrant population in America, she said. There are 100,000 Mixtecos in California, she said. "It's something we have to come to grips with. Not everyone who looks a certain way speaks Spanish," she said.

2009 Jun 15