In the Child's Best Interest

A legal technicality sent Donnie and DeAnne Fitts to a Houston court seeking to adopt Justin and Jacob Baker - again. Twelve jurors agreed that outcome would be the best for the children. Judge Bill Henderson didn't quite see it that way.

A farm and ranch town of about 3,500 in north-central Texas, Seymour seems far removed from the complexities of urban life. The main streets downtown are still paved with brick, and residents who yearn to shop at big-city grocery stores must head to Wichita Falls, an hour's drive to the northeast. Most of the time, the talk at the Maverick Cafe is about the weather. But as 1995 was giving way to the new year, regulars were engrossed in conversation about two of their neighbors, Donnie and DeAnne Fitts, and what had happened to them down in Houston.

Many folks in Seymour have followed the Fittses' story. They know that the couple had adopted two young brothers from Houston named Justin and Jacob Baker, but then found that the adoption was nullified by a legal technicality. They know that the children's biological parents had sued to regain custody, but that a jury in a Houston court had rejected their claims and paved the way for the Fittses to again adopt four-year-old Justin and three-year-old Jacob. And they know what happened next: that a family court judge in Houston named Bill Henderson effectively overturned the jury's verdict, opening the door for the boy's biological father to obtain visitation rights and, potentially, custody of the boys. Henderson hadn't taken the children from the Fittses, but his ruling had reduced the couple's legal status to that of temporary foster parents of Justin and Jacob.

The citizens of Seymour took Henderson's decision as a personal affront, and the town has rallied behind Donnie and DeAnne. Bank accounts to help the couple defray the costs of their legal fight have been set up at the Farmers National Bank and the First National Bank. Donations are being collected in the Tupperware containers with royal blue lids that can be found at T.J. Stockman's feed store, the Rock Inn Cafe and other places where locals converge. Prayers for the couple are being offered at local churches. Mayor Dick Wirz has gotten involved, writing to the governor to protest Henderson's decision. In another letter published in the local newspaper, The Banner, Wirz said he thought Henderson needed "an examination of competency as a human being."

The Fittses are people of modest means -- Donnie is a game warden and DeAnne is a former administrative assistant with Mary Kay Cosmetics -- and could use the help. They are appealing the judge's decision, which means the case could drag on for two more years. Transcription of the trial for the appeal will cost them $15,000. This past year, they made about ten trips to Houston, totaling two months, for various hearings, depositions, psychological tests and the trial of the biological parents' lawsuit.

Far worse than the cost in time and money, however, is the uncertainty and confusion Henderson's decision has visited on the Fittses' lives. They don't even know exactly what to call the two brown-haired boys, who call them "mama" and "pa." Legally, Justin and Jacob's last name has reverted to "Baker," the name of their biological parents.

The Fittses can't understand why the judge did what he did. Donnie Fitts has been a lawman for 20 years, but he says his faith in the judicial system has been shaken for the first time in his life. Jacob and Justin, he says, "are our whole life."

The irony for the Fittses is that they moved to Seymour three years ago to get away from Fort Worth and the turmoil of big-city life. They wanted a peaceful place to start a family and later retire.

Now, whenever Justin and Jacob hear the word "Houston," they associate it with "mama" and "pa" leaving them.

The story of how the word "Houston" came to induce such anxiety in two little boys begins with DeAnne and Donnie Fitts' unsuccessful efforts to have children of their own. DeAnne suffered a miscarriage in 1989, and after that, despite the use of fertility drugs, the couple was unable to conceive.

So they decided to adopt, and in September 1993 they applied to Alternatives in Motion, a Houston adoption agency. They were told they would have to wait at least a year or more. But in the meantime, a 16-year-old girl named Brandi Baker had put her two sons up for adoption through another Houston agency, Blessed Trinity Adoptions. Baker, however, wasn't sold on any of the prospective adoptive parents seeking children through Blessed Trinity, so that agency contacted Alternatives in Motion, which had two applicants who offered everything Brandi said she wanted for her children: a house in the country, a drug free-environment, a mom who didn't work and could stay home with them. And that was how Brandi Baker handpicked DeAnne and Donnie Fitts to be the parents of Justin and Jacob Baker.

Within two weeks, Blessed Trinity administrators called the Fittses and said they had two young boys for the couple. The Fittses cleaned out DeAnne's Mary Kay retirement fund to pay the $17,500 cost of the adoption, and on October 11, they made the long drive down to Houston to meet with the boys' mother.

The agency arranged for the couple to meet with Brandi Baker at a motel near Hobby Airport. They talked with the young mother there, then visited with her over the next few days before being introduced to Justin and Jacob. Brandi told the Fittses she was giving away her children so she could return to school and make something of her life. If the boys one day wanted to meet her, she wanted them to be proud.

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