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.

"We really formed a bond," DeAnne Fitts says of Brandi Baker. "I wanted to adopt her, too."

DeAnne couldn't help but feel sorry for Brandi as the teenager related her hard-luck story. Brandi's mother was in and out of her life as she was growing up, and she was mostly raised by aunts and uncles. Brandi was just 13 when she first had sex with Brendon Baker, who was then 20. In April 1990, shortly after the two began their relationship, Baker went to prison on a burglary conviction. He was there when Brandi, then 14, notified him that she was pregnant with Justin. If Brandi's mother had chosen, she could have brought charges against Brendon Baker for the statutory rape of her daughter. The two were married after their first son was born and Brendon was out of prison. Soon, Jacob arrived.

Both Brandi and Brendon had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, although Brendon has since received his GED. Brandi Baker's resume reveals that she worked for a short while at Taco Bell; the longest job she held was for three months as a receptionist. Brendon Baker worked as a roofer and plumber when he wasn't behind bars. But when he gave a deposition last May for his suit to regain custody of his children, the 25-year-old Baker said he had no bank account and had never filed a tax return.

In addition to their lack of schooling and spotty work records, Brandi and Brendon had something else in common: their mothers were both involved in the shooting deaths of men to whom they were married. Brandi says she was four years old when she saw her mother shoot and kill her father. Carolyn Oatis was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the slaying and went to prison. Brendon Baker's mother, Donna Camblin, was charged for the murder of one of her husbands -- not Brendon's father -- but received deferred adjudication and three years' probation.

That legacy of violence found expression in Brendon Baker, at least according to what Brandi told the Fittses and what she said in her own May 1995 deposition.

Brendon Baker, she said, had choked her, busted her lip, pulled a knife on her and struck her in front of Justin. He also had threatened to kill her and the children. Once, Brandi summoned the police when Brendon smashed out the windows of her mother's car with a baseball bat. She called the law again when he left a threatening message on her answering machine, vowing to blow off the head of the boyfriend she'd taken up with after Brendon had gone to prison again for a parole violation.

There was also the matter of Brendon's inattention to his children. While in prison, Brandi testified in her deposition, Brendon seldom asked about either of her sons or sent them letters or presents. She managed to support the family with food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.

When Brendon was out of prison, Brandi once left Justin with him. When she returned, her husband was smoking crack cocaine, she claimed, and the unattended child was dehydrated, appeared to have been crying and had a dirty diaper.

The 16-year-old mother of two was reaching a breaking point when she called a crisis hot line in the summer of 1993. Through the hot line she was connected to Blessed Trinity Adoptions. Her attorney, John McDermott, now says that the agency took advantage of Brandi's vulnerability and "vigorously compelled" her to give up her children. Brandi would later file a lawsuit alleging fraud by Blessed Trinity.

"Brandi Baker knew exactly what she was doing," says Sallee Smyth, a lawyer for Blessed Trinity. "She had a plan. She had a goal and she set out to accomplish it. She knew at every turn what she was doing."

And if Brandi Baker harbored any doubts or felt coerced to give up her children back in October 1993, the Fittses say they didn't see it. Records show Brandi Baker kept her children about two months after signing relinquishment papers in August 1993. During that time, she could have changed her mind. But after meeting with the Fittses, she seemed resolved, and she even arranged for a ceremony at her church to bless the adoption.

One of the saddest things for DeAnne and Donnie was leaving Brandi Baker behind on the day they drove off with Justin and Jacob.

"I wish we could have brought her with us, then," DeAnne Fitts says. "My heart broke for her that she had to deal with so much."

Texas law requires that children must live with their adoptive parents six months before the adoption can become legal. It was June 1994 when Donnie and DeAnne Fitts finalized the adoption in Seymour, the county seat of Baylor County.

In the meantime, the two youngsters had been getting adjusted to their new family and home. The Fittses live on five acres in the country outside of Seymour, complete with a horse named Whiz, a dog named Dixie, two turkeys, five cats and T.J., a baby goat that the boys raised themselves and bottle-fed after the kid's mother died. The Fittses, too, were adjusting and discovering the joys of parenthood. They found that Justin was similar in personality to DeAnne Fitts: he was artistic, enjoyed puzzles and loved the Bible story about Jonah and the whale. Jacob, the younger boy, was affectionate and happy-go-lucky; he loved to roughhouse with his new dad. In personality, he favored Donnie Fitts.

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