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.

While Henderson denies that he was biased in favor of the biological father or his court-appointed attorney, juror Judith Beaven says several of her colleagues believe that the judge did demonstrate a partiality toward Chism.

Other critics of the judge's decision have pointed to the fact that Henderson set lawyer Lynn Kamin's fee at $7,500 for representing the interests of Justin and Jacob. Henderson appointed Chism to represent Brendon Baker in late October, right before the case came to trial, and set his fee at $15,000. The judge, who has the discretion to set reasonable fees for his ad litem appointments, explains the discrepancy by saying Blessed Trinity indicated it had a separate agreement with Kamin to pay the balance of her bill.

But Winnell Byrd, Blessed Trinity's director, says that's not entirely true. The agency struck no deal to pick up the remainder of Kamin's bill -- which, according to Kamin, was for more than $30,000.

"We were appalled at the discrepancy in fees," says Byrd. "The whole thing stinks. He was so biased. He was just letting his true feelings be known."

Henderson's decision has become something of a cause celebre among groups that advocate for adoptive parents and argue that the courts routinely show undue favoritism to biological parents, to the detriment of the children's best interest.

"He just doesn't get it," Joyce Zachman of Adoptive Parents Together, a local advocacy and educational organization, says of Henderson. "Adoption is about permanency."

In some ways, the judge seemed to view the Baker-Fitts dispute as that of a divorcing couple, where compromise is necessary in deciding on visitation and points of contention. Winnell Byrd of Blessed Trinity says it was as if the judge wanted the Fittses, the Bakers and Justin and Jacob to be one, big, happy family.

But adoption doesn't call for a compromise -- it's based on a termination of the biological parents' rights to their children. Even in open adoptions, in which the birth parents know the adoptive parents, visitation is seldom a part of the agreement. Relating to two sets of parents is considered confusing to young children.

Henderson says he is sensitive to the issue of permanency in adoption, and it's an arrangement he prefers. But he says he's bound to ensure that the rights of biological parents are not abjured, and in the case of Brendon Baker those rights superseded the best interest of Justin and Jacob.

"It may be a disservice to the children," Henderson says, "but I have to do what my oath requires."

According to one veteran family court judge, in such cases the rights of biological parents are indeed to be considered along with the best interest of the child. A judge must balance the two; it's a judgment call as to which prevails.

Zachman and other advocates for adoptive parents are seeking an attitudinal change by the courts, so that judges will start from the premise that a psychological bond can be just as strong as a biological one.

That, they say, would be in the children's best interest.
"At some point in an adoption case -- one, two or three years down the road -- the rights of the child should supersede the rights of the (biological) parent," says Star Boone of the Houston chapter of Hear Our Voice, a national child advocacy group.

Just before Christmas, Brandi Baker and Blessed Trinity reached a settlement of the fraud suit Baker had filed against the agency. While the agreement is confidential, the agency admitted no wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Brandi's lawyer has filed a motion in Henderson's court asking the judge to overturn the jury's decision to end her parental rights. It is scheduled to be heard on January 24.

These days, Brandi says, she's "coming up in the world." She's living with her boyfriend in a four-bedroom brick home, has plans to get her GED and wants to enroll in a modeling school. The 18-year-old who dropped out of the ninth grade and had two children before she was 16 has big dreams: someday, perhaps, she would be like to be a medical malpractice lawyer. Or maybe she will become a model, and that could lead to a career in the movies.

Up in Seymour, the Fittses' neighbors were generous over the holidays with their donations for the couple's legal expenses. They're also getting some help in Houston: Adoptive Parents Together's Zachman is organizing a February fundraiser, and librarian Karen Bohls, one of the jurors whose decision the judge overturned, is spearheading a letter-writing campaign of protest to Henderson's judicial superiors.

Meanwhile, Justin and Jacob asked Santa Claus for a swing set, and on Christmas Day, Santa delivered. It was a clear, sunny day in the Fittses' little slice of Texas. The boys donned new pairs of overalls and passed the hours swinging, seeing how high they could fly toward the blue sky. But a few days later Donnie Fitts had to go to Abilene on business, and Justin and Jacob grew agitated, asking if he was going to Houston again.

On Janaury 10, Brendon Baker told the Press that he was living with his new girlfriend in the FM 1960 area. He said he was looking for a job, and in the meantime was baby-sitting his girlfriend's children while she works. He said he wanted custody of Justin and Jacob, and he vowed that nothing would stop him until he got his family back.

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