Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 7, 1998 / 9 Tevet, 5758
Child custody or child endangerment?
A travesty unfolds in Washington
THE CLOCK IS TICKING for Cornelius. In a few weeks, this happy 2-year-old boy will be ripped away from the only mother he's ever known and returned to the care of his birth mother, a 23-year-old twice-convicted felon who killed another of her four children. A Maryland judge ordered Cornelius removed from the custody of Laura Blankman, the foster mother who is trying to adopt him, and turned him over to Latrena Pixley, the troubled young woman who gave birth to Cornelius while on probation for the murder of her 6-week-old daughter. The case stands as a monument to the cruelty of a system that cares more for preserving the parental rights of dangerous and irresponsible adults than protecting children.
Maryland Judge Michael D. Mason ordered Cornelius to begin overnight visits with his birth mother immediately and to move in with her permanently in two months. The toddler, who has been living in a safe and stable neighborhood in suburban Maryland with Blankman, will be sent to a halfway house in dangerous Northeast Washington, D.C., a crime-ridden, drug-infested area where his mother temporarily lives because she has no job or other means to support herself or Cornelius.
But the danger of Cornelius' new neighborhood is probably the least of his problems. The real threat to his safety comes from the woman whose blood claim on the child Mason believes is pre-eminent.
Latrena Pixley has quite a history. I first read about her in 1993, when she received an appallingly light sentence for killing her newborn daughter, Nakya, a year earlier. According to her own testimony, Pixley smothered the infant because the child was crying from hunger. She then dumped the baby in the trash bin outside her apartment and waited for her new boyfriend (not the baby's father) to return. The couple, who couldn't buy baby formula for little Nakya, then went out for barbecue and came home around 2 a.m. The next morning, over breakfast, she told the man what she had done, and he reported the murder to police.
For her crime, District of Columbia Judge George W. Mitchell sentenced Pixley to serve weekends in prison for three years, with time off during the week so that she could receive job training. The case caused a minor furor at the time over the levity of the punishment but quickly faded from view until 1996, when Pixley once again became news. This time, she was facing trial for credit card fraud, hardly newsworthy in itself, but Pixley's case had a twist. Pixley had stolen the Social Security numbers of her fellow trainees in a program she enrolled in while on probation. She used the stolen numbers to obtain phony credit cards and, when her scheme was discovered, was removed from the program but not initially prosecuted.
During her travels through the justice system, Pixley managed to win over some powerful advocates, including Jerome G. Miller, the director of Washington's child welfare agency. Miller's agency hired Pixley after she was fired for her credit card scam and continued to employ her even after she pleaded guilty to fraud.
At every point, Latrena Pixley has been given the benefit of the doubt. She has had ample opportunity to turn her life around, but there's little evidence she has. She has borne four children by four different men, none of whom she bothered to marry. In addition to killing her daughter, Pixley has not raised her two oldest children, one of whom is being raised by his paternal grandparents, and the other, whom Pixley is forbidden from seeing, is in foster care.
Is it in Cornelius' best interests to return him to such a woman? William Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption, which is providing legal assistance to Blankman in her appeal of the custody order, notes bitterly that a woman of Pixley's character and history would likely be denied custody of a stray cat. But not custody of a vulnerable child.
The justice system is playing Russian Roulette with little Cornelius' life in the name of family preservation. "This child has a family, a mother, a grandmother, relatives and friends -- people who love him," Laura Blankman told me in an interview. "Latrena Pixley never provided this for him. There is no one in Pixley's circle who ever provided any support for Cornelius."
True justice and family preservation would be served by letting Cornelius stay with his real mom, Laura Blankman.
12/24/97: Affirmative alternatives: New initiatives for equal opportunity are out there
12/17/97: Opening a window of opportunity (a way out of bilingual education for California's Hispanic kids)