Appeals court upholds ruling on toddler Woman who killed infant allowed custody of son, 2

adoption advocates livid

July 10, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The Court of Special Appeals upheld yesterday a Montgomery County judge's decision to return a toddler to his mother, even though she killed her baby daughter in 1992. The court denied the adoption request of the woman who is still taking care of the boy.

The ruling in the emotionally charged case -- if not appealed to the state's highest court -- clears the way for Latrena Pixley to have her 2-year-old son, Cornilous, returned to her at the end of summer.

The case has created a storm of controversy over when -- and if -- a parent who is convicted of killing an infant can be considered rehabilitated and trustworthy with another child, and whether state laws favor biological parents too heavily.

Lawyers for Pixley, who is on probation and moved last month from a halfway house into transitional housing in Washington that allows children, said she was pleased.

"Latrena Pixley has changed momentously since that incident involving her daughter," said Ralph E. Hall Jr., one of Pixley's lawyers.

Attorneys for the child and for Laura Blankman, a Montgomery County police officer who has cared for Cornilous since he was 4 months old, declined to comment.

But adoption advocates were livid.

William L. Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption, said he was astounded that judges rule that "blood is more important than anything else, that race is a major factor and that one's murderous conduct to a sibling is irrelevant." Blankman is white; the toddler is black.

The three-judge panel held that Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason did not err in ruling that because Pixley smothered one child, it does not automatically mean Cornilous would be in danger five years later.

Mason agreed in December with Pixley's experts who said that her murder of her 44-day-old daughter was a result of post-partum depression and that she would not pose a threat to Cornilous.

Maryland law presumes that children belong with their parents. To break that tie, a judge must find that a change in custody in the child's best interest.

Pixley, then 19, pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court in March 1993 to second-degree murder in the death of her 44-day-old daughter.

Pixley claimed she was suffering from post-partum depression. She was placed on probation and ordered to spend weekends in jail.

Then, four months after Cornilous was born in 1996, she was convicted of credit card fraud and sent to prison.

Blankman became the infant's temporary custodian. In February 1997, Blankman petitioned the Montgomery County Court for adoption, which Pixley has fought.

Samuel C. Totaro, a past president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, said the appellate court's ruling should not come as a surprise, given that most state courts favor biological parents.

"The courts have taken the position that if there is no abuse happening to the specific child -- they have these feelings that blood is thicker than environment," he said.

Because of the broad discretion given to trial judges, it is hard to overturn a trial judge's decision except if there is an error on a matter of law, he said.

"People do go to jail and they do change," Totaro said. Nevertheless, he felt a young child would be at risk with a parent convicted of murdering another child.

"Especially with a little child, a toddler -- if this child were older and he could basically defend himself and if he were going to school where he could be seen by other people and tell other people about things, maybe," Totaro said.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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