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.

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.

The lawyer showed up at the hospital, and according to Collins, persuaded her to hand Franklin over to him. The stay at the hospital had stretched into several hours, and Collins says Moore promised to take the child to his own doctor the next day.

"We stood arguing five or seven minutes at St. Joseph's," recalls Collins. She had grown wary of Moore's intentions, and suspected he did not want to give up Franklin. But despite her misgivings, she allowed Moore to take the boy. "This was the worst mistake I could have ever made," Collins says now. "I let my child go back to this man's house."

As soon as she got home, she called Moore's house and got no answer. The following day, she continued to bombard Moore's house with calls, but still received no answer.

That morning, according to court documents, Moore had in fact taken Franklin to his own physician, Dr. Marrie Richards, and told her that the boy had complained that his parents had beaten him on the back, stomach and penis with a broomstick. Richards examined the child, found that the boy had a fever and noticed marks on his body that seemed suspicious. She recommended that Moore take Franklin to Texas Children's Hospital for tests. Moore took him.

Once the hospital admitted Franklin, its staff began asking questions: Who were Franklin's parents? What exactly was Moore's relationship to the boy? Moore had no parental documents showing he had legal custody of Franklin, and at first told workers he did not know how to contact Franklin's parents. That evening, when hospital personnel refused to allow Moore to leave with the child, he called Collins at the hotel where she worked.

Moore told Collins that Franklin was in the hospital. The next voice on the line, she recalls, was that of a child-welfare worker who brusquely informed her that she needed to get to Texas Children's immediately. When she arrived, she didn't yet know that Moore had alleged that she and Frank Chatman had beaten Franklin with a broomstick and forced him to drink toilet water with detergent when he was at Collins's apartment. Moore had also claimed that Collins was a chronic drug addict, and that he intended to get a court order to take possession of Franklin.

Collins says the hospital workers were prepared for the worst when she arrived. "These people were waiting for this monster to walk in the hospital," she remembers, "and they see a well-dressed, well-kept woman whose first concern was her child." Confronted with the abuse allegations, she vehemently denied them, and hospital personnel began taking a closer look at James Moore.

Franklin remained at Texas Children's for a week, but doctors found no physical evidence that he'd been abused, either by his natural family or by Moore. Still, all didn't seem right with the boy.

Among those who examined Franklin was hospital social worker Jennifer Stansbury, a former Harris County child-welfare worker and the wife of Fort Bend district judge Thomas Stansbury. The social worker hadn't seen Moore or Franklin previously, and hadn't been told much about the case.

What she saw in a hospital consultation set off alarm bells. Moore "was holding the child the entire time," Stansbury recalled in a deposition. "He was stroking him, his buttocks, and he kept going, like, down and then under. And it was a continuous motion down and under. It wasn't a pat. It wasn't anything I'd ever seen somebody do to a child before."

Moore also kissed Franklin on the lips, Stansbury said, in a way that was "sensuous, not comforting."

According to Stansbury's deposition, she later learned other members of the hospital staff observed Moore exhibiting "inappropriate behavior" toward the child.

Stansbury also stated during the deposition that she was afraid of Moore. When his attorney asked why, she answered, "I think he's obsessed, and I worry about being a target of his anger." Asked to explain what she meant by "obsessed," she replied that what she had seen in the hospital room led her to believe Moore was obsessed with Franklin.

Observers were also concerned by Franklin's own behavior. Harris County Children's Protective Services caseworker Tila Marbley saw Franklin and Susanne Collins together at the hospital on April 21, two days after his admission, and was struck by the boy's behavior."

"He was lying on his mother's lap," Marbley testified in a deposition. "He had his hand inside his briefs, and his hand was moving. It was an up-and-down constant motion.... I've seen little boys fiddle with themselves before. I've never seen a child go up and down, up and down in constant motion before."

When Marbley asked Collins what her son was doing, she replied, "He always does that." When Collins was instructed to tell him to stop, Marbley recalled, "he laughed and kept doing it."

After the hospital completed its tests and found no evidence of physical abuse, Texas Regulatory and Protective Services took custody of Franklin and placed him in a foster home, where he remained for two weeks. TRPS recommended that permanent custody of Franklin be awarded to his grandmother, Virginia Howard, a blood relative who offered a proven, stable child-rearing environment.

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.

Austin responded to Perry's letter by saying that Perry's conclusions were "overreaching beyond any scientific data available to this psychologist." Austin reported that his observation of Franklin and Moore through a one-way mirror led him to believe that the relationship was appropriate, that Moore reduced Franklin's anxiety and helped him adjust to his surroundings. Austin explained away the reports of inappropriate kissing and fondling, saying the observers probably misinterpreted the intimate handling of children customary in Moore's family. In Austin's opinion, Moore is a perfectly acceptable caretaker.

Perry disagrees sharply. "We have significant concerns about Mr. Moore's intentions and quality of caregiving," he wrote to Galik. "All information now available to us suggests very strongly that Franklin is best placed with his maternal grandmother, and that further contact with Mr. Moore is inappropriate and potentially destructive."

Concluded Perry: "Franklin has been poorly served by a system which has allowed this bizarre situation to occur."

In her yard, talking about her grandson, Virginia Howard cries sometimes, the tears glinting behind her wire-rimmed glasses. She dreads Monday morning, when Moore will pick Franklin up, reclaiming the boy for another two long weeks.

The case has made Howard despair of the legal system, and of her chances of receiving justice. "I looked at a document that said if someone takes care of your child a minimum of six months, they have [legal] standing," she says with a shake of her head. "It's creepy, because anyone could do that. You could be sick, you trust someone, and then they say, 'I have your child now.'"

Hawklike, she keeps her eyes on the boy as he plays. For this weekend, at least, he is hers to care for. For this weekend, she can protect him.

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