ANNAPOLIS – Latrena Pixley had already murdered one child when a Montgomery County Circuit judge in December gave her custody of another of her children who was up for adoption.
Judge Michael D. Mason said it was in the child’s best interest to reunite him with his biological mother rather than let him be adopted by the woman who had cared for him since he was 4 months old.
But state and county lawmakers said Wednesday that the judge’s ruling defied common sense and they want to make sure it does not happen again.
“No matter what his reasoning, this is the kind of thing we’re trying prevent from happening,” said Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, one of a number of lawmakers supporting the Child Protection Act of 1998.
The bill, unveiled Wednesday, would require courts to give primary consideration to the child’s safety when deciding whether to take him from a parent who has been convicted of abuse.
Right now the “scales are tipped in favor of the biological parents,” said Baltimore County Executive C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger. “We need this legislation to strengthen our ability to protect children who are involved in unstable family circumstances that require state intervention.”
Under current law, prosecutors have to prove that a parent is unfit. The new law will place the burden of proof on the parent.
“The bill won’t be able to help in this (Pixley) case, but it will keep similar situations from happening,” said Duncan.
But some lawyers are doubtful.
“The court already works to decide what’s in the best interest of the child — it’s the law,” said John Austin, a Towson lawyer who said he is not sure what practical effect the bill would have.
“If the parent has a problem, any good attorney would try to minimize it,” said Austin. Parents can be rehabilitated, even in cases of abuse, he said.
Supporters of the bill said they were spurred to action by another horrific child abuse case in Montgomery County, before the Pixley case even came to light.
County social service workers discovered in November that Richard Holmes, then 5, had been abused and imprisoned in the bedroom of his Germantown apartment by his father and the father’s girlfriend. Officials said the boy had been beaten, force-fed peppers and liquor and tied to his bed with a cat leash for up to 22 hours a day, among other abuses.
Duncan said that “horrific situation” got the attention of lawmakers, but the Pixley case reaffirmed the need for a change in the law.
In June 1992, Pixley smothered her 6-week-old daughter when the baby would not stop crying, then wrapped the child in a plastic trash bag and dumped the body in a trash bin near her Washington, D.C., home. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to three years probation, with weekends in jail.
In 1996, Pixley had another child, Cornelious, her fourth. After she was sent back to jail for violating probation, she left Cornelious with Laura Blankman, an intern at the Public Defenders Service, who has since cared for the boy.
When Blankman filed to adopt Cornelious, Pixley accused her of trying to steal her baby and challenged the adoption in court. Judge Mason awarded full custody of the child to Pixley.
Besides the fact that she was the biological mother, he noted that Blankman is white while the Pixleys are black.
The idea for the change in the law is not a new one, said several Senate and House members. House Speaker Casper Taylor, D- Allegany, who was on hand to support the bill Wednesday, said a similar bill failed last year.
“The tragic events are very often what it takes to move us forward,” he said.