Insider

Baby Tug-of-war. They're common folk from Converse, locked in a legal battle to get their grandchild back from a Houston judge

 Krisna Acuña already had a little girl named Destiny when she became pregnant again last year. The father-to-be, an older boyfriend of the 19-year-old, immediately refused paternal responsibility. Acuña's parents, Jose and Bertha, were already raising Destiny in their home in Converse outside San Antonio, so Krisna decided the burden of a second child would be too great on them and her.

The teen contacted a San Antonio adoption agency to handle arrangements for delivering her baby and giving it away. The decision split the family, with Krisna's parents vehemently opposed to having a future grandchild pass out of their lives. Jose Acuña works as a technical support specialist for a communications company and says he can provide his grandchildren with a good home.

In an unusual twist, the Acuñas sued their own daughter and the agency, Adoption Services of America, in state court in San Antonio. They petitioned for the right to be first on the list to adopt Krisna's baby and, at minimum, to retain future visiting rights to the baby.

John Anderson
The elder AcuŮas are pitted against a Houston adoption agency in a baby battle.

According to the Acuñas' attorney, Robert Medley, the agency and the grandparents agreed not to take any legally binding action until after she gave birth. Then a court hearing could be held to determine whether Krisna should be allowed to terminate her rights to her baby.

Things didn't quite work out that way. Krisna delivered a healthy girl July 22, but, Medley says, agency officials immediately broke the court agreement.

"Instead, the agency went to the mom and got her to sign the [termination] papers after the 48-hour waiting period, without Mr. and Mrs. Acuña knowing what they were doing," contends Medley. "Then they came into court and tried to throw the grandparents out on the basis they had no standing."

When a parent gives up a child through an affidavit of relinquishment to an agency, grandparents have no right to seek access to that child under the law. So the court initially ruled in favor of the adoption agency and its attorney, San Antonio state Representative Robert Puente.

The agency had already given the baby to 48-year-old Houston civil district Judge Tazewell Lamar McCorkle Jr. and his wife, lawyer Regina Giovannini. The couple named her Anna and have cared for her since. "We were first in line, and yet Judge McCorkle got the baby," laments Bertha Acuña. "We did all the paperwork. It puts him in an unfair advantage over us, because he's using his knowledge as a judge and his contacts. I picked a lawyer out of the phone book."

The Acuñas replaced that lawyer with Medley. He went back to court, arguing that Krisna could not legally sign away the child, because the adoption agency violated its promise to return to court before getting her signature. Judge Martha Tanner reinstated the Acuñas' suit and scheduled a trial to determine custody.

Neither Judge McCorkle, his wife nor his attorney, well known family law specialist Ellen A. Yarrell, responded to Insider inquiries for comments on the dispute. Likewise, a call to Puente's San Antonio law office was not returned.

Last Wednesday Tanner denied a request by the agency for a gag order to block the parties from discussing the case outside of court. She also denied the Acuñas' request for temporary visitation rights.

Arlene Fisher, adoption coordinator at Houston's Depelchin Children's Center, says the legal fight is very unusual. She cannot recall any similar cases involving her organization.

"Usually when the grandparents want to parent, the birth mother is willing to let them parent, so it is never an issue," says Fisher. "They're usually more than happy, so it sounds like there's also probably some friction between the girl and her parents."

The Acuñas' suit targets the adoption agency, which retains managing conservatorship of Anna. But the case has gotten a lot more personal than that, since the mother has had a change of heart. Initially, Krisna Acuña says, she was in denial of her pregnancy, "and after giving the baby up, I realized that was not the best way to handle a pregnancy."

Several weeks ago Krisna called McCorkle in Houston to ask him to return the child.

"I told him that I wanted the baby back, that I felt I had made a mistake giving her up," she recalls. "He asked me why, and I said I hadn't gone to any counseling other than with the agency itself. All he said was that he and his wife had been doing what I had asked in the beginning, raising the baby themselves and loving her."

According to Krisna, the conversation ended with McCorkle saying he would discuss the matter with his wife.

The grandparents made similar appeals to the McCorkle family shortly after the birth of the baby.

"The sad thing to me was he met us," says Bertha Acuña, who spoke to the McCorkle couple in a hospital hallway as they were taking possession of the baby. "He knew that we the grandparents wanted this baby, and I even told him flat out: This was not about him, this was about trying to keep our family together."

McCorkle and his wife contended in court that they have had the child for more than 90 days, have bonded with the baby and should be allowed exclusive custody without visiting rights for the Acuñas. Attorney Medley argues that the judge and his wife were well aware of the situation before they took the baby home.

"Our point is they could have had any number of babies through any number of agencies, and they chose to grab ahold of this baby, who this Hispanic family is trying to keep in their family."

However the case turns out, Jose Acuña hopes the publicity alerts other grandparents to the dangers of the adoption process to families. He says his daughter was immature and confused, and received little counseling.

"This child was not in lack of a family, as most adoptive children are looking for," says Jose Acuña. "This child had a family already there that loved and wanted to keep her."

A Blast from the Past

The last time Cheryl Dotson held a salaried position in Houston city government was 1989, for then-mayor Kathy Whitmire. Dotson was deputy director of finance and administration behind finance director Camille Cates Barnett, the flamboyantly nicknamed "Dragon Lady" who frequently clashed with City Councilmembers.

When Whitmire named Barnett chief administrative officer, Council balked and stripped her of the title. Barnett resigned, and Dotson followed soon after to take a position in private industry.

Now she's back as the $110,745-a-year deputy chief administrative officer who will provide the Brown administration with advice on technical strategy in improving management. Dotson reports to chief administrative officer Al Haines, another Whitmire-era face Mayor Lee Brown brought back to City Hall. The mayor should be more than familiar with Dotson's work, since she served as director of budget and finance for the police department during the mid-eighties, when he was HPD chief.

Dotson's last public splash came last year in Washington, D.C. It was in connection with her old boss, Barnett, at the time the district's chief management officer.

According to the Washington City Paper, Barnett never conducted open bidding in awarding an $893,000 contract to consultant Dotson to outfit the District's antiquated Department of Motor Vehicles with a new computer system.

According to the paper's Loose Lips political column, city officials waited several months for action on the computer project before examining how Barnett was handling the matter. "The result of the inquiry was a contrite admission in late August by Barnett that she had illegally awarded the contract to an associate," the publication reported.

"In addition to holding up the motor vehicle project by over eight months, the Dotson fiasco has all but scuppered other key management reforms, including creation of a departmentwide call-in center and various technology upgrades."

Dotson says her contract was scuttled because Barnett failed to get the proper approvals but that the work was eventually completed without any delays.

"We didn't have to start from scratch," scoffs Dotson. "And frankly, if we had been doing a bad job, why did they take the person that worked for me, give the contract to a huge company and let him keep right on working?"

Dotson says she was offered another contract in D.C., proof that she was doing good work. Instead, she decided to come back to Houston "because the tide had begun to turn in terms of people there wanting to make a real specific change in administration."

Among those the tide washed out was Barnett, who stepped down after less than a year in her D.C. job. Barnett has now been the short-lived, controversial chief administrative officer of Dallas, Houston, Austin and D.C. If Brown decides he needs a well-traveled Dragon Lady to fill any more administrative holes, he knows where to go hunting.

Help the Insider in his hunt for news nuggets. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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