Obscured by fuss of Bouknight case Little boy lost: The legal questions in the case of Jacqueline Bouknight threaten to obscure the small boy whose whereabouts she has refused to reveal for seven years.

October 31, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

He would be 9 now -- long past the tiny sailor suit and trusting baby smile he used to wear.

His chubby toddler's face with the soft brown eyes would have set about defining itself. He may still have that mop top of thick, curly hair, if he has not shaved it to fall into line with fashion. Somewhere in his bones would lie the physical memory of fractures he suffered just months out of the womb.

The child known as "Maurice M." is the biggest element in the case that bears his name, and the smallest. Sometimes the legal battles over the seven-year jailing of his mother, Jacqueline Bouknight, for refusing to tell a Baltimore Circuit judge where he is have threatened to blot him off the radar screen completely.

In moving for Ms. Bouknight's release at a hearing scheduled for today, state officials have acknowledged that they may never learn whether Maurice's mother got away with murder, as some suspect, or whether Ms. Bouknight successfully hid her boy from the foster care system she grew up in and abhorred.

His disappearance, in a way, has turned Maurice into something much larger than himself.

"I always thought of him as this little, little, helpless kid, just really little and brittle," said Susan Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland law school and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth who has followed the case.

"You think of somebody who needs someone to care for him, and we all let him down. When I think about kids in the system, one of the things that comes to mind is their voicelessness. In the end, it's the voicelessness of Maurice."

The mystery of Maurice has led the lawyers, the investigators and even the judge to play roles that could cover every hypothesis. They visualize the growing pains of a child who may have been dead for many years; they stay awake nights worrying about the welfare of someone who may be a ghost. "I not only have to assume he's alive, I have to believe he's alive," said Mitchell Y. Mirviss, Maurice's court-appointed lawyer. "He's my client."

Police officers, private investigators and law students have looked for Maurice at various times over the years, in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Baltimore. The FBI put together a computer-enhanced image of what he might have looked like as a 6-year-old. Lawyers and police have read through Ms. Bouknight's school and foster care records in the hope of finding leads to "Rachael Anderson," the friend to whom Ms. Bouknight most recently said she gave Maurice. So far, that person has not been found.

Maurice's story

The first and only child of Jacqueline Louise Bouknight was born Oct. 3, 1986, at what was then called Francis Scott Key Medical Center in East Baltimore. Two months later, the infant was at the hospital for treatment of pneumonia when doctors found fractures of his upper right arm and shoulder.

The boy was back again in January 1987 with a broken left femur, requiring a full body cast. During that hospitalization, Ms. Bouknight was seen shaking Maurice and throwing him into a crib, according to court records.

Strongly suspecting abuse, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services obtained a court order to put Maurice in foster care. But Ms. Bouknight won the baby back several months later, after taking child-rearing classes and working well with an in-home aide -- despite a psychological evaluation that warned against it. She promised to produce Maurice for DSS at any time.

Philip Maguire, the Child Protective Services worker who was charged with monitoring Ms. Bouknight and her baby, last saw them together Sept. 4, 1987, a month shy of Maurice's first birthday. Maurice "appeared well-fed with good affect and hygiene," according to the social worker's notes. Four days later, an in-home aide who worked with Ms. Bouknight saw her with the child for the last time. No notes were made about his condition during that visit.

Neighbors tell the story of a day sometime later that fall, when they noticed a large woman holding Maurice and loading his crib and other belongings into a blue station wagon with wood trim on the sides and out-of-state plates.

Other relatives and friends claimed to police that they had seen the baby later that winter and even in the spring of 1988, close to the time Mr. Maguire realized Maurice had disappeared. Some recalled Ms. Bouknight and the baby's father, Terrance Miles, talking about the child's being in North or South Carolina, or in Florida. John Brown, the former foster father with whom Ms. Bouknight lived off and on, told police he had seen the child as recently as March, around the time that Terrance Miles was killed in a drug-related shooting.

The next month, Ms. Bouknight was taken to court and ordered to produce Maurice. First she said he was with an aunt in Baltimore, then with a sister in Texas. Then she refused to say anything more. Judge David B. Mitchell ordered her jailed for civil contempt April 28, 1988, and she has remained there since.

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