Monday, August 16, 2010

Mississippi stealing: What the feds found

    The previous post to this Blog is about a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican woman living in Mississippi when her newborn daughter, Ruby, was confiscated at birth by child protective services because Ms. Cruz was poor and did not speak English.

    The lawsuit alleges that caseworkers and the hospital's "patient advocate" – and yes, that's her title – "fabricated" false allegations against Ms. Cruz and conspired with the judge to ensure that the child was handed over to affluent white foster parents; attorneys who wanted to adopt Ruby and who frequently practiced before that judge. Details of what SPLC alleges was an attempt to "steal" Ms. Cruz's newborn are in the lawsuit complaint.

    Even after Ms. Cruz got her child back, the court maintained a gag order, so neither she nor her lawyers can talk about what happened in court.

"Mississippi officials and hospital workers conspired to steal Cirila Baltazar Cruz's baby by inventing false charges against her — allegations she couldn't refute because she doesn't speak the right language — and then told her she couldn't talk about it," SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer said in a news release. "This was an outrageous violation of her most fundamental rights, and we're deeply concerned that other mothers in Mississippi might be subjected to the same treatment."

Evidence that other mothers, and their children, may indeed be subjected to the same treatment comes from an investigation launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That investigation puts to rest the most frequent dodge of latter-day child savers when they're caught taking poor people's children: The claim that such cases are aberrations.


    HHS found that, in the Cruz case, over and over again, Mississippi violated federal laws and regulations. In a letter from HHS to the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, HHS suggested that Mississippi DHS was so cavalier about these violations that "This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident."

    Among the HHS findings [emphasis added]:

    Reasonable efforts to prevent removal were not made. The agency social worker was unable to conduct a proper investigation due to the language barrier with the limited English-proficient mother and the agency failed to take reasonable steps to ensure effective communication with her. Spanish speaking interpreters were used despite the clear indication that the mother's primary language was not Spanish [it's Chatino, an indigenous language in Mexico]. [DHS'] concerns were related to mother's housing arrangements; however no efforts were made to assist her in acquiring more suitable/safe housing so that the child could remain with her. No services were offered to the mother at all.

    The mother did not receive a case plan until April 24, 2009 – 5 months after the child has been removed. The case plan … required that the mother complete a parenting class ([Although case plans are supposed to be individualized, tailored to the specific needs of each family] the Agency reported that this is standard on all case plans),show proof of employment, and demonstrate suitable housing by producing a signed lease agreement. No services were offered to the mother to assist with the employment or housing requirements. The mother was referred to a community-based organization to watch a two-hour parenting video that was presented in Spanish. The video did not address caring for a newborn…

    A review hearing was held timely on May 13, 2009. However, based on noted concerns raised regarding impermissible ex parte communication between the Judge and the Agency and the foster parents, as well as the stated bias against the mother by the guardian ad litem assigned to the case, it is questionable as to whether all of the requirements of the review outlined in [federal law and regulations] were met.

    Reasonable efforts were not made to identify or contact relatives of Ms. Cruz to assess them as placement resources. Ms. Cruz' cousin, who lives in Alabama, was present during all of the agency's contact with Ms, Cruz, but no efforts to assess him as a placement resource were made until January 28, 2009 [more than two months after the child was removed]. … The agency also failed to make efforts to contact family members who resided in Mexico and in other parts of the United States. There was also no attempt to contact the father of the child or any parental relatives …

    The MDHS [Mississippi Department of Human Services] 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.

    All this is all the more remarkable considering that HHS is not exactly known for aggressive investigation of child welfare agency failings. To get a letter like this, the problems have to be flagrant, and easy for anyone to see.


    That means they should have been easy for the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights to see when they sued Mississippi DHS in 2004. It should have been easy to see when they settled the lawsuit in January, 2008. And it should have been impossible to miss when the first news accounts about the case appeared in June, 2009.

    But, of course, CR has made clear over and over that it doesn't much care about keeping children out of foster care in the first place (indeed, they've undermined such efforts), or about the rights of children like Ruby and all the others like her, taken when family poverty is confused with neglect. But then, I don't imagine that was a top priority of corporate raider Carl Icahn, back when he chaired CR's board, either.

    It's been said so often that it's become a cliché, but it's still true that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

    So it's fortunate that the Southern Poverty Law Center stepped in, when the good people at the group that so arrogantly calls itself Children's Rights did nothing.