Mother-in-Law from Hell

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.

Over the next two days, they pleaded with Ana to return Orien. Then on January 30, Ana warned that if they kept protesting, she'd call the police, according to the lawsuit. "This is a mother-in-law from hell situation," Dietz says.

Late that night, Ana called 911 and reported Cynthia wanted to take her own life. Officers again rushed to the townhouse on West Eighth Street. This time, they didn't push through the door. But after talking to Erik, they determined the young mother believed she "wasted her time giving birth, therefore she wanted to kill herself," according to the police report.

Both Erik and Cynthia deny saying that. They acknowledge she was sad without her baby but say she never thought about suicide.

And so once again, police held her under the Baker Act. This time she was taken to Citrus Health Network on West 20th Avenue in Hialeah and placed in a room alone. "I would bang on the door and sign, 'I want to go home,'" she says. There was nobody to sign back.

A day later, she was moved to Jackson Memorial Hospital and given a translator. Soon she was discharged with no medication.

On February 6, a letter addressed to Erik arrived at their townhouse. It appeared to be written by his lover. "I don't want to get you in trouble with your 'crazy wife' as you call her, lol," it read. "I will remember your wet fat kisses all over my body."

Erik and Cynthia believe it was an attempt by Ana to separate them. "She wanted me to marry someone rich," Erik explains.

On February 8, the couple filed an emergency motion with the Miami-Dade family court division to have their child returned immediately. They were granted custody 12 days later.

In late December 2007, they sued Hialeah and Palmetto. The claim: Both the city and the hospital failed to provide her an effective means to communicate. They seek damages for mental distress, humiliation, physical pain, and violation of their constitutional rights.

The young couple has since moved to Sullivan City, Texas, three hours south of Corpus Christi. Three months ago, they had a second baby. They don't speak to Ana much anymore.

Ana contends she's not overbearing and that Cynthia voluntarily left the baby with her on the way home from the hospital. Asked why parents who agreed to give up their newborn would file an immediate motion for custody, she said, "Okay, listen. Uh, I don't — Cynthia seems to have a lot of problems from childhood. Maybe she was jealous because Erik was very close to me." She also denied writing the letter.

Hialeah City Attorney Bill Grodnick said he would not comment on the facts of Cynthia's complaint, though he concluded that "based on preliminary assessment, we feel the case has no merit."

Paul H. Field, who represents Palmetto Hospital, faxed New Times a statement that said, "Mrs. Cuevas's admission was not scheduled, which meant that the hospital was not able to have an interpreter standing by."

Both Hialeah and Palmetto have previously settled Americans with Disabilities Act claims for discriminating against the hearing impaired. In 2004, a deaf man named Cesar Muñoz sued the city, claiming police officers cuffed and threw him to the ground for not responding. Hialeah paid Muñoz $10,000. Palmetto, too, settled a 1997 case for having no written policy for procedures with the deaf. Details of that case were unavailable.

"Erik and Cynthia have been stepped on their entire lives," says Dietz. "You see a case like this and you wonder how it got to this."

Cynthia adds simply: "The whole thing was bad communication."

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Natalie O'Neill
Contact: Natalie O'Neill