Little Girl Lost?

Brittany Ann Corcoran, age seven, went "missing" for seven months. She resurfaced with a case of head lice, holes in her socks and nothing settled about what has been and what will become of her...

He arrived and was pleased to discover she had brought Brittany along. After they all visited for a spell, Jones said she was leaving town.

"She just said, 'I'm leaving the community," Corcoran recalls. "That's all --'I'm leaving the community,' and 'I'm getting married.'

"I was like, where are you going? Where are you taking my daughter? She wouldn't tell me."

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It's difficult to reconcile Jim Corcoran's harsh description of Nikki Jones with her actual appearance and demeanor, which are delicate and calm, respectively. She arrives accompanied by a file folder and a little bit of mystery: This is the woman who went to jail for kidnapping her daughter and refusing to turn her over to the custodial father. How do you have a normal life after that?

The answer is that Jones hasn't had a normal life since long before she went to jail. She is, perhaps understandably, bitter, but she still has her sense of humor. She laughs easily, and never raises her voice, preferring to speak dispassionately about her relationship with Corcoran.

Her criticisms of Corcoran, unlike his gripes about her, lack a condescending edge. Instead, she sounds exactly like she feels -- like a victim; like someone who long ago gave up any hope that the father of her child was a decent man. At times, she speaks of Corcoran as if he were a child --which, she says, is precisely how he's behaved.

He treated her poorly, Jones recalls, preferring to spend his time and money at topless bars rather than at home. When she got pregnant, Corcoran wanted her to abort the baby. She refused. When he failed to pick her up from work one day, and she tracked him down at The Men's Club, she ended the relationship. When she moved out, a month before giving birth, she sent Corcoran a form to sign, relinquishing his parental rights. He signed it and sent it back.

After Brittany was born, Corcoran sent a little money, but then began ignoring his responsibility to his daughter, Jones says. He never tried to see her, and the one time they ran into him, at a post office in Bellaire, he didn't stop to talk or visit with his daughter.

When told that Jim Corcoran has offered a very different story, Nikki Jones smiles and rolls her eyes. She reaches into a file folder and starts pulling out papers and court documents. She offers a document called "Affidavit of Relinquishment of Parental Rights," which Corcoran signed in two places.

While the form isn't notarized, as Corcoran points out, neither is it an adoption paper, "generic" or otherwise. The word "adoption" doesn't even appear on it. Jones then produces a court filing in case number 92-033904. It's a response to Jones's "Petition to Establish Paternity of a Child," and on the fourth line from the top, Corcoran does, in fact, deny paternity.

Corcoran delayed the paternity test for a year by demanding that Jones pay half the cost. Finally, a judge ordered Corcoran to pay for the test himself. (Corcoran insists he never denied paternity. When asked about the document filed with the court in his name, he says, "That might have happened, but I don't recall it.")

In July 1994, Corcoran sued for custody, claiming that Jones was an unfit mother. Jones challenges anyone to find one piece of evidence in the paternity-case file that justifies removing Brittany from her care.

Indeed, there have never been any allegations of child abuse against Nikki Jones. There has been no history of mental stress or breakdown; no drunken brawls, orgies or drug arrests. Moreover, a social study ordered by the court recommended that Brittany remain with her mother, and T. Wayne Harris, the guardian ad litem appointed to protect Brittany's interest, advised the court that Jones should be appointed sole managing conservator.

"It is time for this case to come to an end," Harris wrote in February 1995. "Almost half my client's life has been in court."

But the case didn't come to an end; it dragged on for another year. After a three-day trial in February 1996, family court Judge Lisa Millard gave Corcoran and Jones joint custody. Two months later, Jones was shocked numb when Millard awarded sole custody of Brittany to Jim, who had known his daughter for just two of her six years.

Later, Jones learned that Corcoran eventually spent close to $100,000 on legal fees. As for Jones, she was employed off and on throughout the proceedings and was often without counsel.

"Jim just didn't want to pay child support, and then when the judge made him, he decided he'd just pay someone else and get custody," Jones says. "How can you possibly justify spending $100,000 on lawyers, when that money could be going to benefit the child?"

Lots of Harris County litigants, particularly women who've experienced the local family-law courts, have asked that question before. Beginning in 1992, the Family Law Center downtown was overrun with courthouse critics protesting inequities in scores of divorce, probate and custody cases. Carrying placards that attacked particular judges, they bemoaned the overriding influence wealth and politics have on justice by haranguing lawyers coming from and going into the building.

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