BOISE, Idaho -- A young girl whose custody case was ultimately decided by the Idaho Supreme Court traveled to Mexico earlier this week to begin living with a father she had never met before.
Maria Ramirez, 3, flew to Mexico on Monday and was handed over to her father, Jesus Ramirez, to begin a new life with him and his family in Salamanca, a small town in central Mexico, according to officials with the Consulate of Mexico in Boise.
In April, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that a lower court erred in severing the man's parental rights even though he had never met his daughter, initially came to the U.S. illegally and was barred from ever returning. The Idaho Department of Health and Human Services argued to have the father's custody rights severed as the agency explored placement options for the child after officials removed the girl from the mother's home.
Mexican officials in Boise cheered the girl's transfer to her father's custody and the legal process that affirmed the rights of birth parents over questions of a parent's immigration status.
"As you might imagine, it was a very emotional moment for the father," said Mexican Consulate in Boise spokesman Sebastian A. Galvan Duque, whose colleagues were part of the team who traveled with the girl to Guadaljara this week.
"The (Supreme Court) decision sets forth an important precedent for similar cases in Idaho and strengthens the judicial framework which allows non-citizen parents to continue enjoying their parental rights," he said.
Robb Tilley, the Nampa attorney who helped on the case of Jesus Ramirez, did not immediately return messages left by The Associated Press on Thursday.
Ramirez married an Idaho woman in 2007, years after illegally entering the United States, according to court records. About a year later, he was forced by court order to return to Mexico and was joined on the trip by his wife. She became pregnant shortly afterward but returned to Idaho and gave birth to Maria in November 2008.
Jesus Ramirez tried to rejoin his family in March 2009, but was caught in Arizona and returned to Mexico, court documents show. That same month, Maria Ramirez was removed from her mother's home in Middleton, a small town in southwest Idaho, amid allegations of abuse and neglect. She was subsequently placed in protective custody after state officials found the mother wasn't providing adequate care.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare then began working on a case plan for the mother, aimed at reuniting mother and daughter. But at the same time, the father began seeking information and reached out to the agency, telling a caseworker he wanted his daughter to live with him.
By early 2010, the mother showed no signs of progress, prompting the state to begin terminating her custody rights. Agency officials also sought to terminate the father's parental rights, claiming he abandoned the child.
At the time, Maria Ramirez was living with a foster family whose mother was an employee at the agency and willing to provide a permanent home. Agency officials also claimed keeping the child in the U.S. was in her best, long-term interests.
Jesus Ramirez argued against the state's plan and initially lost when a magistrate judge determined that he couldn't support the child financially.
But the state Supreme Court disagreed and even questioned the state's motives in noting an agency employee had hopes of adopting the girl.
Tom Shanahan, spokesman for IDHW, said the court's ruling also reaffirmed an important lesson for the agency: the primacy of parental rights.
"It's the kind of thing that we'll for sure be paying more attention to, especially in situations like this ... when we have someone we're dealing with who doesn't live in the country," Shanahan said.