Federal court delivers important victory in SPLC case against hospital, state employees accused of taking baby from immigrant mother

A federal judge has ruled that a case against two employees of Singing River Hospital and a state child welfare caseworker accused of unjustly separating a newborn baby from her mother may proceed – denying the defendants’ attempt to claim immunity for their actions.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate ruled earlier this week that two employees of Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula and a Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) caseworker may have violated the constitutional rights of Cirila Baltazar Cruz and her infant daughter. The judge rejected the defendants’ argument that the claims against them should be thrown out. The SPLC filed the lawsuit in 2010.

“This decision means that state officials cannot violate with impunity a mother’s constitutional right to raise her child,” said Michelle Lapointe, SPLC staff attorney. “Immigrant parents – like all parents – have the right to keep their families together. Fabricating charges against a mother to separate her from her child is egregious, and we are happy that Ms. Baltazar Cruz will have her day in court.”

Courtesy of Sharon Steinmann

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Baltazar Cruz and her daughter. The mother – who speaks the indigenous Mexican language Chatino, limited Spanish and virtually no English – gave birth to her daughter at Singing River Hospital in November 2008. Two days later, the child was taken from her following allegations by a hospital employee who spoke only in Spanish to the mother.

The child was placed with a local couple who were initially unlicensed as foster parents. The baby remained with the couple for a year, and Baltazar Cruz’s parental rights were nearly terminated.  Following the SPLC’s intervention in a separate state court case, Baltazar Cruz and her daughter were reunited in November 2009. Her full legal rights as a mother were restored in February 2010. The state court case also triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights into the actions of Singing River Hospital and MDHS.

In his decision, the judge noted that the case “is riddled with contradicting stories and potential indicia of misconduct” and that the plaintiffs “have presented a prima facie case that their rights were violated, that those rights were clearly established, and that the defendants acted unreasonably.” The judge also noted that the constitutional right to family integrity is “clearly established.”

“This ruling affirms one of the most time-honored and fundamental constitutional rights anyone has – the right to parent and to keep one’s family together without unwarranted state interference,” said Kristi Graunke, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “As a result of the defendants’ actions, our client lost a precious first year with her daughter.”