Fighting for Franklin

A white lawyer has him. His grandmother wants him back

But at the same time TRPS was making its recommendation, the case moved to the legal arena -- Moore's home turf. Moore retained a lawyer from the pricey firm Piro and Lilly. It was a cagey choice: One of that firm's name partners, Earl Lilly, has close social ties to Annette Galik, the judge of the court hearing Franklin's case; the other name partner, Bob Piro, made a $4,000 in-kind contribution to the judge during the period that the case first appeared before her court, while the firm donated another $1,000. It was the legal maximum that members of a single firm can make to a district judge. Such contributions are not unusual, but the practice is often cited by court critics as a corrupting element of the system.

But even Piro and Lilly apparently didn't seem to have enough pull with the judge to suit Moore. The lawyer also approached Alvin Zimmerman, a past Galik campaign treasurer, and Frank Harmon, her current campaign treasurer, about representing him in the case. Both turned him down.

In the court hearing last April, TRPS officials testified that Virginia Howard should receive custody of her grandson. Judge Galik's court master, Paula Asher, hearing one of her first cases in that capacity, made TRPS the managing conservator of the boy -- but gave temporary custody to Moore, as recommended by the court-appointed psychologist, Dr. Richard Austin.

By now, that temporary arrangement has lasted nearly a year, and Howard considers it intolerable. She says she's fighting not only for the unity of her family, but for her grandson's cultural identity as well. "In slavery, when we were cut off from our heritage, it had a detrimental effect on our culture," she says. "Everybody needs roots."

(Interestingly, even Houston's strongest advocate of placing black children with black families believes that Franklin's case isn't really a matter of race. Odessa Sayles was the lead program director of Harris County's Child Protective Services for 25 years; she retired in 1993. Sayles argues forcefully that it takes a black family to teach a black child to deal with the racism that confronts him on an almost daily basis. But in Franklin's case, Sayles says, race is irrelevant. "The relative situation takes precedence over anything. Anything," she emphasizes. "If Virginia were white, and Franklin were a white child, and this is a white man, and the grandmother has proven she can rear children, the grandmother should take precedence over a nonrelative.")

In the meantime, Howard's court costs continue to erode her savings. She's hired her own attorney, William Lura, and to maintain standing in the court, she must pay a share of the costs of both a court-appointed psychologist and a guardian ad litem attorney. In the case's latest twist, Judge Galik has ordered both parties to enter sessions with a court-appointed mediator. Howard will have to pay her share of the fee, though she holds out little hope that the parties can find common ground. "There's nothing to mediate," she says. "I want the child."

Though Howard is paying her share of the court costs, she -- and others -- believes that she's not receiving fair treatment. Rock Owens, the assistant county attorney who represents Texas Regulatory and Protective Services, believes that the court's psychologist and ad litem guardian are both tilted in Moore's favor.

Owens questions the recommendations of court-appointed psychologist Austin, who preferred Moore over Howard. "I don't understand how a psychologist can sit back and take a look at Moore, who's been divorced four times, and say it's much better for this child to be over in this non-culturally related setup," says Owens. "That's the agency's perspective on it, not just my opinion."

Dr. Bruce Perry, a nationally known expert on child abuse and the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital, examined Franklin during his stay there, and has taken a continuing interest in the boy's case. Like Owens, Perry questions the ad litem's objectivity and the psychiatrist's methods.

Perry's clinical case record appears in the court files. In one entry, he writes that Gano discussed only the physical abuse allegations against Franklin's mother but never mentioned the sexual abuse allegations against Moore -- whom she described as "Mr. Whitebread" and "Giant Caretaker-Savior." Perry also claimed that Gano made a blanket statement that African-Americans' parenting strategies were "punitive and not developmentally appropriate." And just as troubling, Perry says that Gano mentioned that Moore had previously represented her black housekeeper in a suit to force a West University sports league to allow the maid's children to play -- an indication that Gano held Moore in some esteem, and thus might be partial to him. (Gano declined to comment on the custody case, but stressed that Moore had represented her housekeeper years before, and that she hadn't met him until she was appointed to represent Franklin's interests.)

Perry -- whose professional reputation far outstrips that of Austin -- questions the other psychiatrist's methods. This summer, in a letter to Judge Galik, Perry complained that Austin's activities were "disjointed and poorly coordinated," and that Austin's repeated questioning of Franklin made it impossible for Perry to conduct a solid forensic interview.

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