Judge Who Took Away Immigrant’s Baby Said Lack Of English Would Cause ‘Developmental’ Problems

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CREDIT: Photo by Sharon Steinmann, courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Cirila Baltazar Cruz gave birth to a healthy girl in November 2008. But she was discharged from the Pascagoula, Miss. hospital without her baby, after social services officials who didn’t speak her language claimed she traded sex for housing, was undocumented, and concluded she intended to give her child away.

After the state health department filed a “report of suspected abuse and neglect,” officials temporarily gave Baltazar Cruz’s baby to a couple who wanted to adopt a child, but were not licensed as foster parents, according to court documents. And at a court hearing that followed, Judge Sharon Sigalas agreed with the couple’s argument that the baby would have “developmental” problems because she would not communicate with the baby in English.

Baltazar Cruz is a member of the indigenous Chatino group in Oaxaca, Mexico, and her primary language is an indigenous language known as Chatino. She knows limited Spanish and almost no English. While she was at the hospital, her Chatino-speaking cousin tried to tell officials that she is actually employed at a Chinese restaurant, and did not in fact “admit” to allegations that she was involved in the sex trade. But a social services representatives who did not know her language nonetheless excluded her cousin from discussions between them.

In a proceeding that provided no translator to Baltazar Cruz, Youth Court Judge Sigalas concluded the young baby was “neglected,” and declined Baltazar Cruz’s request to even see her daughter. Baltazar Cruz was without her daughter for almost a year, and the court nearly terminated her parental rights.

It was only after a federal investigation of the case was initiated that the judge, prosecutor, and guardian ad litem all recused themselves from the case, claiming a new conflict of interest. The judge who replaced Sigalas granted Baltazar Cruz custody.

A federal judge ruled Friday that these officials could not now claim immunity from constitutional allegations against them, concluding, “This case is riddled with contradicting stories and potential indicia of misconduct.”

“At the time [case worker] Hayes allegedly seized R.J.M.B., the child was only a few days old, hospital records revealed that Baltazar Cruz and R.J.M.B. were bonding well, and Hayes’ own Investigation Report on November 18, 2008, denied that Baltazar Cruz was abusing her child, failing to protect her child, or placing the child in danger of physical harm,” wrote U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate.

The ruling means that these officials cannot hide behind government immunity, and will likely have to, at the very least, defend the allegations against them in the lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center.