Saying he would make another "concession" to a long-incarcerated mother in the hope of finding her missing child, a Baltimore juvenile court judge has stripped custody of the boy from the city's Department of Social Services.
According to sources in the case, Judge David B. Mitchell said in a court order that he hoped his actions would speed continuing discussions between Jacqueline L. Bouknight, her attorney and attorneys for her son, Maurice, who has been missing for nearly seven years.
Judge Mitchell also suspended hearings in the case to give discussions time to bear fruit. He wrote he would be available at any time to hear new information that could lead to the boy, and to the release of his mother.
Ms. Bouknight, 28, has been in jail since April 28, 1988, when Judge Mitchell found her in civil contempt of court for refusing to tell the whereabouts of the boy, whom she previously had abused.
Initially, some suspected she had killed him.
While some authorities still presume the child is dead, lawyers in the case believe he could be alive. Ms. Bouknight, herself a former foster child, testified in court last week that she had given Maurice to a friend named "Rachael" years ago to keep him from returning to Maryland's foster-care system.
She also said she did not want the Baltimore City Department of Social Services to have any part in efforts to find her child now.
The judge's action strikes down the department's ability to take custody of Maurice if he is in another state, at least for the next several months.
Social-service workers here could become involved once again if the child were found in Maryland and someone reported that he was being abused or neglected. The judge also could change his order.
Judge Mitchell said he expects any information given by Ms. Bouknight will be provided to Baltimore police Detective Tyrone S. Francis for investigation. The information must be verifiable, he wrote.
The judge asked that parties in the case prepare confidential, monthly progress reports on their discussions with Ms. Bouknight.
Proceedings and papers in the case have been closed to the media since last Thursday, when Judge Mitchell rescinded an order allowing access. Juvenile-court proceedings are closed by state confidentiality laws unless judges exercise discretion to open them.
The judge's order detailed some of the efforts the court and lawyers in the case have made to resolve the roller-coaster case since 1988, sources said.
Those efforts have included special access between Ms. Bouknight and her lawyer in the Baltimore City Detention Center and efforts to reassign Detective Francis to her case. Monthly hearings also were held for a time to give Ms. Bouknight the chance to purge herself of contempt, until she asked that they be halted, sources said.
Attorneys in the case would not comment on the judge's order or on discussions with Ms. Bouknight over the past few days.
In his order the judge also expressed frustration with the case's glacial pace, writing that despite making "concession after concession," the court has made little progress in establishing the truth about the boy.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 ruled that Ms. Bouknight could not use the Fifth Amendment to avoid continued incarceration on the contempt order. But she has spoken very little about her son nonetheless, making hers one of the longest periods in the country served for civil contempt.