Thursday, June 18, 2009

No English, no child?

People who complain about the tone of NCCPR's advocacy – usually because they can't touch us on the substance – may get upset when I say that child welfare systems sometimes become the ultimate middle-class entitlement – step right up and take a poor person's child for your very own.

Those folks might want to take a look at what's going on right now in a case in Mississippi.

Cirila Baltazar Cruz is from Mexico. She gave birth to a baby girl, Ruby, at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula last November. Ms. Cruz speaks no English. The hospital apparently thought: Hispanic name, doesn't speak English – she must speak Spanish. So they got an interpreter who speaks Spanish.

But Cruz doesn't speak Spanish either. She speaks Chatino, an indigenous language spoken by only about 50,000 people. According to The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, by the time the "conversation" was over, the hospital claimed to be under the impression that Ms. Cruz was "'exchanging living arrangements for sex' and planned to adopt out the child before returning to Mexico."

Ms. Cruz and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), which has come to her aid, deny that. But even were it true, I don't think child welfare authorities are taking the children of women who work in the legal brothels of Nevada. And placing the child for adoption may well be exactly what authorities in Mississippi are planning to do right now.

Because the hospital called CPS, which promptly confiscated the child. She's been in foster care ever since. MIRA says the infant was placed with "an affluent attorney couple in posh Ocean Springs…" Of course, there is no way to know if the couple knew the circumstances under which Ruby came into their care.

But it gets worse:

According to MIRA, the hospital also turned in Ms. Cruz because

The "baby was born to an illegal immigrant;" The "mother had not purchased a crib, clothes, food or formula." (Most Latina mothers breast feed their babies). And "She does not speak English which puts the baby in danger."
And by the time the case reached court, the more lurid allegations morphed into something even less justified. According to the Clarion-Ledger:

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.

A spokeswoman for the Mississippi child welfare agency denies that they have a no-English-no-child policy. But she did not explain why the allegation keeps turning up in case records.

The case is not unique.

In 2005, the Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat, revealed that, at least twice, a local judge ordered Mexican mothers to learn English – or lose their children forever. (Access to the story may require free registration on the newspaper's website.) In one case the child still lived with the mother, in the other the child was in foster care. In both cases, the mothers spoke an indigenous language rather than Spanish. NCCPR helped call the cases to the attention of national media. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did stories, the Southern Poverty Law Center heard about the case from news accounts and got involved. The mother at risk of losing her child had her case dismissed. In the other case, where the child already had been placed with affluent foster parents, custody was awarded to the birth father. The judge was disciplined by the Tennessee Court on the Judiciary.

But in Iowa, which long has had one of the nation's most regressive child welfare systems, The Clarion-Ledger noted that

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.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, MIRA did what neither the hospital nor CPS was either willing or able to do. According to a press release from the organization:

MIRA located an interpreter who is fluent in Chatino in Los Angeles CA and has interviewed the mother extensively with the interpreters help. The mother has been accused of being poor and not being able to provide for this child. No one has asked the mother to provide evidence of support. She owns a home in Mexico and a store which provides both secure shelter and financial support, not counting the nurturing of a loving family of two other siblings, a grandmother, aunts, uncles and other extended family.

Fortunately, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which intervened in Tennessee, also is helping the mother in the Mississippi case.

There is one other group that could be a big help here. They settled a class-action lawsuit about the Mississippi system. They're even bragging about alleged progress in that state on the home page of their website. And they are enormously skilled at P.R. But so far, I've seen no public comment on this case from the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights.

Two footnotes to this story:

The only reason the scandal in Tennessee was exposed and the judge disciplined was because a very good reporter, the late Brooks Franklin, as a matter of principle would show up at the local juvenile court whenever the Lebanon Democrat was interested in a story. Courts in Tennessee are nominally open, but judges routinely throw reporters out, Franklin told me at the time. While he was waiting to be thrown out, he happened to witness the judge issue is "no-English-no-child" order. So this is one more reason why it's so important that all courts hearing child welfare cases be open. The judge, of course, didn't see it that way. In defending himself to the Court on the Judiciary he said he was sorry he ever spoke to the newspaper. He complained that the public controversy "made me look like an idiot."

In Mississippi, a spokesman for the hospital did not respond to any of the specifics alleged by MIRA – he just said the hospital was right to turn in the mother. But he added that he's "really not pleased" with the tone of the MIRA press release.