Mother-in-Law from Hell

A boorish mom, insensitive cops, and a deaf couple add up to nasty controversy.

Just before dinner on a Sunday evening in January 2007, there was a knock at the door of Cynthia Cuevas's small red townhouse on West Eighth Street. But the nine-months-pregnant 21-year-old didn't open it. She had seen police lights flashing outside and was frightened. So she pushed on the door to keep it shut until, suddenly, eight officers burst in. Some had guns, perhaps Tasers, drawn, she recalls.

One of them grabbed Cynthia by the arms and pinned her against the wall. Another questioned her husband Erik Phillips about her mental health and state of mind.

Cynthia couldn't hear any of it. She's deaf. Though she has no history of mental illness and zero Florida criminal record, she would be forced to spend eight nights in the hospital against her will. "I was crying and screaming because I was afraid," she says. "I needed an interpreter, but they didn't seem to care."

Cynthia and Erik recently sued the City of Hialeah and Palmetto General Hospital, where she was held. They contend police were abusive and then improperly kept her from her baby Orien after his birth — mostly because they were ignorant about the disability. The dispute not only tells the story of a dysfunctional family but also raises serious questions about how law enforcement is trained to treat the hearing impaired.

"There's nothing more Twilight Zone than being taken to a mental institution when you're sane and not being able to communicate," says her lawyer, Matthew Dietz. "This is beyond hell."

Cynthia Cuevas was born in Ciudad Reynosa, Mexico, and has been hearing impaired since she was two weeks old. She went to a day school program for the deaf at Memorial High School in McAllen, Texas — on the border near Brownsville. After graduation, she met Erik online at DeafChat.com. Soon she asked him to be her boyfriend, and he flew to Texas from Florida for a visit. They were married on the morning of Valentine's Day 2006.

The couple's hell began with an argument over laundry. On the evening of January 21, 2007, Cynthia and Erik, who is also hearing impaired, got into a spat with Erik's mom, Ana Phillips, a strong-willed 58-year-old. According to their complaint, Ana "attempted to control every aspect of their lives" — such as dictating when they should wash their clothes. When Cynthia became pregnant, Ana even insisted the birth would be by cesarean section.

But that night, Cynthia says, she stood up to Ana. By phone, she said she wanted to rest and would do house chores later. And she was clear about wanting a natural childbirth.

Frustrated, Ana drove to their home and pounded on the door. Cynthia wouldn't let her in, the couple says, so she called Hialeah Police. Officers arrived around 7:30 p.m. and spoke mostly with Ana, who warned them Cynthia was a threat to herself and her unborn baby. (She later claimed Cynthia had hit Erik with a broom and was "acting erratically.")

An incident report signed by Ofcr. Bryan Gonzalez makes no reference to Cynthia's claim that police forced their way in and pushed her against the wall. It asserts the cops found Cynthia "crying and hiding behind the door." Gonzalez also made note that the "victim states she doesn't care about herself or the well-being of the baby" and that she was "refusing help."

During the next 45 minutes, the officers attempted to communicate with Cynthia by pantomiming, since they didn't know American Sign Language. And they tried to speak to her through Erik, who has limited hearing. But the police mistook anger over the recent blowout with her mother-in-law for psychiatric instability, Cynthia says.

After less than an hour, the officers sent her to Palmetto General Hospital by ambulance. She was taken in for a mental health evaluation under the terms of Florida's Baker Act, which allows hospitals to hold individuals who show signs of mental illness, self-neglect, or the potential to harm themselves and others.

There Ana took control, telling personnel Cynthia had gone berserk. Though a security guard with some ability to sign was called in, Cynthia says she understood only bits of what was happening.

Two days later, doctors gave Cynthia pitocin, a drug to induce pregnancy, and recommended a cesarean section. Fearing the baby would be hurt if they objected, the couple went along with the operation. "Cynthia is not an activist," says Dietz. "She's very naive and trusting." On January 23 at 7:19 p.m., Cynthia gave birth to Orien Alan Phillips, an eight-pound five-ounce baby boy.

The next morning, Palmetto psychologist Miguel Flores put a halt to her enforced stay. He found Cynthia "showed no signs of agitation or aggressive behavior," but prescribed Lexapro, a medication for depression. She was discharged four days later.

Things only got worse. On the way home from the hospital, the couple stopped by Ana's home on West 36th Street. But when they tried to leave, Cynthia contends, Ana blocked her from the baby and announced she would care for him.

Frantic and upset, the couple left without their newborn son. "I couldn't get into a tug of war," Cynthia explains.

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