Ruling goes against mother

Killer of daughter can't regain custody of son, appeals court says

Case sent to circuit level

Opinion says woman must prove to judge she won't abuse boy

February 18, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court, ruling in a high-profile adoption case, said yesterday that a mother who murdered her daughter cannot regain custody of her son without proving to a judge she will not abuse him, too.

The unanimous opinion overturned a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling that returned the boy to his mother, who admitted smothering her infant daughter in 1992.

The court sent the case back to Montgomery County to decide whether Cornilous, now 3, is in danger if returned to Latrena Pixley, 25, his mother.

The case has drawn attention from around the nation, mostly from child advocates and adoption lawyers maintaining that a mother who admits to infanticide should not gain custody of another child.

How widely yesterday's ruling will be felt was uncertain.

"It gives more protection to kids," said Paula J. Peters, an Annapolis lawyer whose practice focuses on family issues, because it forces judges to look more carefully at an abuser.

One abused child in a family could easily be replaced by a different scapegoat. Judges "do not necessarily" focus on that, Peters said.

Advocates said the ruling will strengthen state law to put children's welfare before attempts to reunify families. Since the early 1980s, the emphasis in Maryland and across the nation has been to try to keep families together.

"It is setting the bar higher for a parent," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "If a parent has murdered a child, they can't just get custody because a court doesn't think they'll kill the next child. There has to be a specific finding of no likely child abuse or neglect by the parent.

"There has always been a delicate balance between parental rights and the right of children to be safe," she said. "Recent legislation has been tipping in the best interest of the child -- and that really is a significant swing. We are beginning to realize children's health and safety come first."

Responding to outrage over several child abuse cases, including the death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher in Baltimore County, the General Assembly changed state law last year to make it easier to remove children from abusive homes. Cornilous' mother gave him up when she went to jail in 1996 after a credit card fraud conviction.

The legislation, which took effect in July, presumes children are at risk if the parent has been convicted of a violent domestic crime -- and the state has the right to refuse to reunite the family.

Pixley, of Washington, has been battling Laura Blankman, 28, a Montgomery County police officer with whom Cornilous has been living since he was about 3 months old. Blankman first tried to adopt him, and then settled for seeking custody.

"A parent, after all, has no right, fundamental or otherwise, to abuse or neglect his or her children," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote for the court.

The Court of Appeals ruled that it wasn't enough for Montgomery County authorities to decide that Cornilous was not in danger of "fatal abuse" from his mother. He must be safe from all abuse and neglect.

Judge Dale R. Cathell said in a concurring opinion that his six colleagues did not go far enough.

"It is my view that a parent convicted of murdering one of his or her children be presumed an unfit parent, without the necessity of any evidence other than the conviction," Cathell wrote.

Calling it a "common sense ruling," former Maryland State Bar Association President Roger A. Perkins said that in his experience many judges see the abuse of one child as risk to the others.

Through lawyers, Blankman and Pixley declined to comment.

Eleven advocacy groups backed Blankman, and they were overwhelmingly pleased, feeling that under the new standard Blankman's chances of retaining Cornilous have skyrocketed.

"When we left the Court of Appeals [after arguments], my feeling was we had a 90-10 likelihood of losing," said William L. Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption. "I now feel we have a 90-10 chance of winning."

The case will be back in Montgomery courts in the spring.

Cornilous remains with Blankman, though he has unsupervised visits, including one overnight a week, with his mother. She lives in Hannah House, a halfway house in Washington.

Donna Lee Yesner, a Blankman attorney, said she hopes Blankman will win custody this time.

But Jennifer Evans, one of Pixley's lawyers, said she thought the lower court had carefully considered the case and had ruled in the child's best interests.

Pixley pleaded guilty in 1993 in a Washington court to second-degree murder in the killing of her third child, Nakya, who was 44 days old. She had two sons, one she placed with his paternal grandparents and one social workers placed in foster care after Nakya's death.

Because the judge agreed Pixley was suffering from postpartum depression, he ordered a suspended sentence and placed her on probation. Cornilous was born in January 1996.

About three months later, when Pixley was returned to jail after the credit card fraud conviction, she gave Cornilous to Blankman, who she now says is trying to steal her child. The women met when Blankman, then a college student, was an intern for the public defender's office in Washington and Pixley was a client there.

"The original decision offended common sense," said Charlie Cooper, administrator of the Citizens Review Board for Children, a state program in which citizens monitor foster care.

He said the Pixley case is different from many because the state did not intervene. Instead, she voluntarily gave up custody.

"I hope we will fix the law enough so that children can have permanence," he added. "Even custody is stopgap. One way or another, there has to be a decision so we can provide children with the stability they really need."

Sun staff writer Joanna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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