California dream turns to Mississippi legal nightmare

September 21, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MERIDIAN, Miss. -- Tammy Thomas did not go to California looking for trouble. She was fleeing it. Five years of a bad marriage had been all she could stand, and so in 1988 she boarded a bus in Mississippi with her two sons, heading west.

Los Angeles seemed as far away from Meridian, Miss., and her estranged husband as a body reasonably could go. A wonderfully exotic dream, that's what L.A. was -- a sun-kissed Babel filled with the music of unknown tongues and cultures. Stepping off the bus, she entered worlds she had seen only on television.

Tammy found a new life in California, for a while a happy one. Then things turned ugly.

The first sign of trouble, she said, came while her sons were visiting their grandparents in Meridian in 1990, the summer after the divorce became final.

Her former father-in-law called with a question: Who was the black man she was dating?

The call from Joseph Thomas was a shock, but not exactly a surprise. Tammy had known she couldn't hide her new relationship forever. The bigoted racial views of her former in-laws were no secret either.

She never imagined, however, that the small-town Southern mind-set she thought she had escaped could still so profoundly upset her life. Before she knew what was happening, Tammy was sucked into a legal system as she battled her former in-laws for custody of her boys. The tug-of-war was waged across 2,000 miles and a much broader cultural expanse. Central to the battle were questions of race and morality and starkly different community standards of what is acceptable behavior.

After she acknowledged she was dating a black man, Tammy, 29, said Joseph and Delores Thomas began pressing her to move back to Meridian. "The boys need both of their parents," they told her.

If she returned, they would buy her a trailer to live in, a car, whatever she needed. As Tammy recalls it, behind the Thomases' sweet promises they were adamant their grandchildren not be exposed to an interracial relationship.

She refused to budge. Then came the call that would alter the lives of everyone involved. On the day before the boys were to return home to California, the Thomases phoned to say that Steven, 9, and Chris, 11, weren't coming back.

That was the start of a prolonged and at one point violent battle over custody, a fight waged not between Tammy and the boys' father, an alcoholic auto mechanic who admits he is unfit, but between her and the boys' strong-willed paternal grandparents.

At the first court hearing, in 1990, testimony centered mainly on Tammy's interracial relationship with Jake Brown, a corporate bodyguard she had met a year before; on the disputed question of whether they shared an apartment without being married; and on her judgment in allowing her sister, a lesbian, to baby-sit. In the end, Mississippi Chancery Judge George D. Warner Jr. declared that returning the boys to her would be a form of abuse.

Acknowledging that he lacked authority to make a permanent ruling because the boys officially lived in California, Judge Warner nevertheless ruled that an emergency existed and that their welfare would be endangered if they went home. He awarded temporary custody to the Thomases.

Tammy was shocked. "I had it in my heart that my kids were going to come home," she said. "I just didn't think it was an emergency. People beat their kids; welfare takes them away . . . Our situation was nothing like that."

Judge Warner invited her back to his courtroom after she had removed what he termed the moral impediments to her reclaiming her children. So two months later, after she had married Mr. Brown and after her sister had moved to Tennessee, Tammy returned to Meridian. This time, Judge Warner decided he could make a permanent ruling, after all. He gave the grandparents permanent custody.

In court, Tammy was forced to defend a lifestyle that was, by local standards, apparently indefensible. Even the attorney for the Thomases acknowledges that, had the case been tried in California, the outcome would probably have been different.

Judge Warner and the Thomases declined to be interviewed for this story.

The Thomases' attorney, Robert D. Jones, made race an issue by constantly hammering at it in his questions. Still, he insists that Tammy's interracial relationship was not significant. Rather, he said her morality was the issue.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California disagrees.

"As soon as I read the transcript it was so obvious that race was the issue," said Paul Hoffman, the ACLU legal affairs director who is representing Tammy.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1984 Florida case, ruled the impact of an interracial relationship could not be used to remove a child from its natural mother.

"There's no question in my mind that the consideration of their interracial relationship in this proceeding in any way negatively to them violates the equal protection clause of the constitution, and it cannot be allowed to stand," said Mr. Hoffman.

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