Fighting for Franklin

A white lawyer has him. His grandmother wants him back

Franklin Chatman is on the move in his grandmother's backyard garden. Tottering precariously in oversized sneakers, the three-and-a-half-year-old clutches a cherry fruit rollup in one small, chocolate-colored hand; with the other, he clings for balance to a chainlink fence.

His grandmother, Virginia Howard, chats with a visitor, but as she talks, she watches Franklin intensely, like a lioness guarding an endangered cub. "He knows something is going on," she muses, "but he doesn't understand it."

That "something" is perhaps the most peculiar custody battle ever waged in Harris County -- a fight in which Howard, a black, 60-year-old schoolteacher, is pitted against one James Moore, a white, 48-year-old lawyer with no biological relationship to Franklin.

As in most custody battles, each side contends that the other is unfit to care for Franklin. Moore alleges that Howard's family has beaten Franklin and otherwise physically abused the boy; Howard's family denies it. In turn, Howard, Franklin's mother and social workers allege that Franklin's behavior indicates he may have been sexually abused; Moore denies that such abuse could have happened while the boy was in his care.

In the absence of injuries or adult eyewitnesses, abuse can be maddeningly hard to prove. In Franklin's case, there's no such evidence against either side.

In her quest to gain custody of Franklin, Howard is backed by Texas Regulatory and Protective Services; the child-welfare agency strongly recommends that the child be placed with her. But on his side, Moore has the recommendation of a court-appointed psychologist and the formidable weapons of legal expertise and money.

In April, Franklin's fate will be decided in a jury trial that will undoubtedly raise issues of race, class and power. So far, Moore has had the best of the court fight: He has won temporary custody of Franklin, and Howard is allowed to keep the boy only every other weekend. (Perhaps because he has nothing to gain, Moore and his lawyer both declined to be interviewed for this story.) Howard, though, is determined to regain her grandson. Lawyer's and court fees are sapping her life savings, but her retirement funds are the least of her worries. Howard knows that if she loses this fight, she may lose Franklin forever.

The custody fight for Franklin Chatman has many strange aspects, but none is stranger than its beginnings. In court documents, James Moore explains that in February 1993, he ordered Linda Laur, his fourth wife, out of their West Houston home. It was Valentine's Day. He handed her a card expressing love, and then told her to leave. Laur, he said, had a drinking problem, and the last binge had been one too many. "Because I had previously spent close to $10,000 on a prior treatment program," he stated, "I asked her to utilize some of her own personal funds to obtain treatment."

It was a show of very tough love; when Laur walked out the door, she was virtually penniless.

She left behind their son James, then 11, and sought help at the Star of Hope Transitional Living Center, a state-run treatment facility for substance and alcohol abuse. Located on Calhoun Street in southeast Houston, the center houses indigent people in varying stages of substance-abuse recovery. To say the least, it was a far cry socially and financially from Laur's relatively affluent life with Moore.

But that life was over. Laur soon found her bearings at the center, and began a new life. According to fellow residents, she began a romantic relationship with a fellow resident, a black man who later became a Palmer Drug Abuse Program counselor. And she became close friends with two other residents in recovery from alcoholism, Juanita Sloan and Susanne Collins -- the latter of whom would one day be Franklin's mother.

Laur told her new friends that she was trying to escape the orbit of a tyrannical husband. For his part, Moore seemed infuriated that his wife no longer wanted to return to their marriage. He blamed the Star of Hope, and in retaliation, launched a legal and public-relations offensive against the center and its workers. Moore's divorce attorney attempted to force the center to release Laur's confidential treatment records. Her caseworker, Patrick Asuquo, says that Moore hired a private detective to follow him around; residents of the center say that the same detective followed and harassed Laur and her boyfriend.

In July 1993, Moore even sent a letter to Governor Ann Richards and other state officials, demanding an investigation of the Star of Hope. He accused the center's counselors of breaking up his marriage.

Laur had a room just down a hall from Juanita Sloan, and the two women talked every morning. "Linda characterized her husband as very cunning, very devious," remembers Sloan, "and said that he put himself in a position as lawyer where he could get just about anything he wanted. She was scared to death of him."

She apparently had reason to be. On September 27, 1993, when their divorce became final, Moore's hardball tactics seemed to pay off: Besides keeping control of most of the couple's property, he won sole custody of their son. From then on, Laur was dependent on Moore for access to James. Friends say he carefully controlled her visits to the boy, curtailing them as a way to punish her for leaving their marriage.

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