Fighting for Franklin

A white lawyer has him. His grandmother wants him back

It may be that subconsciously, Laur was seeking a surrogate child. Whatever the reason, when she and Susanne Collins moved out of the transitional living center into apartments of their own, she formed a strong bond with Collins's new baby, Franklin Chatman.

By all accounts, Susanne Marie Howard Collins has not led a spotless life. An Army dropout, she married and then left a man later jailed in Virginia for robbery; she never bothered to divorce him. Unable to raise her first two children -- Jenessa, now 18, and David, 14 -- she left them to be raised by her mother, Virginia Howard. When Collins met Laura Laur at the Star of Hope, she too was undergoing rehabilitation for alcohol abuse.

Collins is a vivacious, talkative woman with short hair and a round face that resembles her young son's. Laur, a thin blond with a contemplative bent, hardly seemed a natural soul mate. But the women's friendship intensified after they moved out of the treatment center.

Collins moved in with an unemployed man named Frank Chatman, with whom she had a rocky relationship. Shortly after Franklin was born in May of 1994, Frank was jailed three months for not paying child support for two other children of a woman to whom he was still married. Chatman, an admitted former crack user, repeatedly fought with Collins; in one instance, he stabbed her in the leg. (Afterward, Linda Laur picked Collins up at the hospital.)

During 1995, says Collins, she left the baby in Chatman's care, and was enraged to find that he took Franklin to a house where several people were smoking crack. According to Collins, the incident effectively ended the relationship, though she still took Franklin on regular visits to see his natural father. (Chatman is a party to the custody suit; he's seeking visitation rights to Franklin.)

Collins began working as a corrections officer at the Harris County boot camp and studying at the University of Houston downtown campus for a career in law enforcement. She cared for Franklin with the help of Linda Laur, who was also forging a new life, taking college classes toward a degree in psychology. "Linda would come and pick Franklin up or I'd drop him at her house," remembers Collins. "Whenever she had a free chance, she would help me baby-sit."

Laur was missing her own son fiercely. According to her friend Juanita Sloan, she broke off her relationship with the drug counselor she'd met at Star of Hope because she feared that otherwise, Moore wouldn't let her visit the boy. Moore particularly disliked the drug counselor, says Sloan; she remembers Linda telling her he wrote letters to Laur's parents complaining that she was dating a black man. Laur ended the relationship, says Sloan, and began to work out a kind of detente with her ex-husband so that she'd still be able to see her son.

In early 1996, Laur, who was finishing her studies, told Collins she no longer had time to baby-sit Franklin. Collins, who by that time had left the boot camp, was looking for work and had a hard time affording traditional child care. As a replacement for her help, Laur suggested Caryn Cannatella, Moore's sister, a mother of two adopted Hispanic youngsters. Collins says that she offered to pay Cannatella for the child care, but that Cannatella assured her she could help out for free until Collins had a job.

Collins says she would drop Franklin off at Cannatella's house in the morning; he'd spend the night, and she'd pick him up the next day. The child-care arrangement seemed almost too good to be true -- as did Moore's interest in Franklin.

Collins had met James Moore through his ex-wife. Though Collins had long heard Laur's complaints about him, she allowed Moore to befriend her and Franklin, and accepted his offers to baby-sit Franklin occasionally. Early in 1996, she remembers, Moore called to say that he thought Franklin wasn't receiving enough attention at his sister's home, and that he wanted to outfit a bedroom in his own house for Franklin. Since Moore did much of his work as a commercial litigator at home, he said he'd have no trouble taking care of Franklin during the day. He proposed to take Franklin during the weekdays, and to return him on the weekends. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, says Collins, but it stretched out over a year.

Asked why she trusted Moore with her child, Collins says only that he seemed genuinely caring. Juanita Sloan, Collins's and Laur's friend, explains that Collins desperately needed help at the time, and didn't want to burden her mother with a third child to raise.

In court papers, Moore recounts a very different scenario. He claims that when Franklin was nearly two years old, Collins told him she wanted him to take the baby and raise him as his own son "because his birth father was a no-good S.O.B." He also quotes the boy's father, Frank Chatman, as asking him to take the child. (Chatman denies any such request.)

In early April '96, Collins says, she told Moore that in a few months, she wanted to take Franklin back permanently. On April 13, Moore dropped the boy off at the Four Seasons Hotel, where Collins was working as a security officer. The lawyer gave her $40, she recalls, and suggested that she and Franklin go see a movie. A day later, the boy began complaining that his tongue hurt. After he became feverish, she took him to the emergency room at St. Joseph's hospital, where she called Moore to ask how Franklin came to be ill. She left a message on his answering machine.

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