It should have been an immigrant's dream.
Mariam Katamba, born in Uganda, found herself taken under the wing of one of the most powerful men in Texas. True, her accommodations in state Representative Talmadge Heflin's storage room were not air-conditioned and were sometimes wet underfoot from a leaky roof. But her infant son lived like a little king: The Heflins eventually installed his crib in their bedroom, where they said he would be more comfortable.
Katamba, who lacks a green card, was allegedly hired as a live-in worker in the home of the veteran Republican legislator to take care of Gram, his mother-in-law. Beginning in July 2003, she says, she was paid $100 a week in cash for feeding and cleaning up after the house-bound octogenarian. The under-the-table salary gave the single mother a chance to care for her baby, Fidel Odimara Jr., while she worked.
"Things were going well when I moved in the house," says Katamba, who speaks limited English. "I was happy because I was with my son every time. I could take a look at him and take care of him."
Despite the low pay, Katamba came to feel integrated into the Heflin home. The devout Baptist household also held two of Heflin's nieces -- adopted, at least temporarily, from their parents -- and his sister-in-law, Judy Hall, who had no children. Hall and the Heflins began calling Fidel Jr. "Jude."
But Katamba, who is in her forties, eventually realized she was less popular with the Heflins than her son was. Gram didn't like her because she was black, she says, and in November, the Heflins told her they could no longer afford to pay her. Even so, they offered her continued lodging in the storage room, and said they would look after her son while she worked elsewhere.
Katamba found another off-the-books job paying $250 for an 85-hour week caring for patients in a home for the mentally disabled. She saw her son Wednesday and Friday mornings, and also planned to see him on weekends.
After her first week, however, she returned to the house to find the Heflins had taken Fidel Jr. to Austin. They did the same the next week. She told them to drop her son off at her job before they left, or allow his father, Fidel Odimara, to pick him up. But every weekend, she came home and her son was gone. "They would always have an excuse for why they took him," she says.
The Heflins quickly became possessive of Fidel Jr. In addition to keeping him in their bedroom, they offered to buy him milk, arguing that the milk Katamba received through WIC wasn't good enough, she says. And Hall attended many of Fidel's hospital visits, telling the doctor the boy's name was Jude.
On a Wednesday in mid-July, Katamba asked the Heflins to bring her son to her workplace. She says they arrived without him, and instead dropped off two documents for her to sign. They told her the documents were "not legal" and would simply allow them to make medical decisions for her son in the event of an emergency, she says.
The papers looked far from informal, however. One waived Katamba's right to testify before a child custody court; the other appointed the Heflins "co-sole managing conservators" of her child. Katamba later showed them to her boss. "He told me, 'This paper means they are taking away your son from you.' "
The next day, Katamba told the Heflins she would not sign the papers. She finished work on Friday, emerged from her room Saturday and asked for her son so she could take him to Chuck E. Cheese's. The Heflins told her they would have to go with Fidel Jr. on all outings. Katamba said, "I don't think you can tell me what to do with my son."
A confrontation ensued. Heflin's wife, Janice, now demanded that Katamba sign the papers. When she refused, she says Janice Heflin told her, "Okay, let's meet in court with your green card."
"I told her, 'I don't have a green card,' " Katamba says, " 'but I have rights to my son.' "
Katamba left and stayed with a Ugandan friend, Grace, whose last name she withholds. "I couldn't even talk," she recalls. "I was just crying. I cried, like, 30 minutes, and then I tried to explain to her" what had happened.
In many regions of Africa, including Katamba's native Uganda, leaving one's child in the care of neighbors is normal. "It's the concept of 'It takes a village,' " says Katamba's attorney, Jolanda Jones. Men and elders also hold exalted positions in Ugandan society, she adds, which is why it took Katamba a long time to stand up to Heflin.
On the following Monday, Katamba called a caseworker at Ben Taub Hospital and explained the situation. Her son was scheduled for a doctor's visit that afternoon, and the caseworker pledged to help. When Heflin showed up with her son an hour late, Katamba asked him three times to hand over the toddler before he begrudgingly complied, she says. The doctor refused to allow Heflin and Hall to enter his examining room with Katamba. They waited outside, she says, and left only when the caseworker threatened to call security.
The battle over the boy had only just begun.
A few days later, Janice Heflin filed a petition asking Family District Judge Linda Motheral for custody of the child. Such requests are typically granted in only the most extreme cases, where it can be shown the natural parents pose grave physical danger to a child's well-being. In affidavits, the only bits of evidence the Heflins marshaled were speculations that the child, who suffered mild asthma, might be exposed to cigarette smoke, and Katamba might return with him to Uganda or Nigeria. They also said Odimara had assaulted Katamba, a claim she denies.
Even so, the order was granted without giving Katamba even a chance to weigh in, and a police officer knocked on Grace's door a few days later and seized young Fidel.
Fearing the worst from the Heflins, Katamba quit her job.
The first custody hearing over the boy sparked a media frenzy in August. The Heflins claimed Katamba had shown little interest in the child, and that Odimara beat the boy's feet together to punish him for not learning to walk. They also said Katamba had abandoned two other children in Uganda.
In a recent interview, Harry Tindall, the Heflins' attorney, further disputed Katamba's story. He said the Heflins never paid her to care for Gram or threatened her regarding her immigration status. They took her son to Austin on the weekends only because she was rarely around him. And they asked her to sign over custody, he added, because she said she planned to take a job in New Jersey and had asked them to raise Fidel Jr.
The Heflins "helped a woman in need," Tindall says. "They invited this woman into their home as a guest, to help her get back on her feet."
But Katamba says she now believes the Heflins tricked her. She has only one other child, Hakim, who is in the care of his father, her ex-husband Mahmood Ibrahim, a nurse in Germany, she says. And she never planned to move to New Jersey and leave her son. She says the Heflins created these lies and exploited her cultural differences in a calculated effort to steal her son.
Judge Motheral conducted three hearings and refused to rule on Jones's motion to dismiss the case. Then, in an unusual move, the judge independently dismissed it on her own motion. Jones discovered the news through the media. She thinks the Republican Party may have pressured Heflin to give up the fight to avoid political fallout.
"This whole thing reeks of influence," she says. "It reeks of the exercise of power without regard to the consequences of anything."
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Katamba is just happy to have her child back. On a recent afternoon, she sat with Jones in her law office while Fidel Jr. boisterously played with a plastic telephone and a stuffed alligator. At one point, while Jones held the boy, he began aggressively pointing his finger as if lecturing his elders. It's just one of the unruly behaviors the boy picked up from the Heflins, who never disciplined him, Katamba says.
Nonetheless, life is looking up for Katamba and her son. Although jobless, she's receiving support from her new boyfriend, a U.S. citizen who has offered to marry her.
The ordeal has taught Katamba a lesson about people in America who claim to be devout Christians. "Just because they are for Jesus," she says, "doesn't mean I can trust them."
But despite the discriminatory undertones of the Heflins' claims on her child, Katamba is keeping an open mind. "Every country you live in, there are good people and bad people," she says. "So I can't blame all Americans." -- Josh Harkinson