Latrena Pixley, speaking in a quiet voice, told a Montgomery County judge yesterday of her love for her 3-year-old son, Cornilous, and of her feelings of being betrayed by the woman who has raised him most of his life.
"That's my son," Pixley replied when one of her attorneys, Ralph Hall Jr., asked why she wants custody of Cornilous. "I love him, and he needs to be with me." At least once she was moved to tears.
But she had few kind words for Laura Blankman, who is seeking custody of the boy. She accused Blankman of violating her trust, of calling herself Cornilous's "mommy" even before he could speak the word and of trying to change his name to Joshua during her failed attempt to adopt the boy.
When asked what worried her most about Blankman possibly gaining custody, Pixley replied she was worried that Blankman would try to keep Cornilous away from her and "that she would tell him negative things about me." Pixley asked Blankman to care for her son in 1996 when she was imprisoned.
The lengthy custody battle over Cornilous, who turns 4 next week, is being played out this week in Montgomery County Circuit Court in something of a rerun of the 1997 adoption proceeding in which Blankman contended that Pixley--who admitted killing her 6-week-old daughter Nakya in 1992--could not be a fit mother.
The case intensified debate over the rights of biological parents when a Montgomery County judge denied the adoption and said Pixley should regain custody because she no longer posed a threat of physical harm. The ruling was overturned on appeal, and the lower court was ordered to determine whether Pixley posed a danger of abuse or neglect.
Attorneys for Blankman, a Montgomery County police officer, have argued that Pixley remains too emotionally troubled to be a fit guardian for her son.
Pixley, 26, testified that she has changed her life since she got out of jail two years ago. She said she has taken parenting classes and has been in biweekly therapy sessions.
She holds a job as a customer service representative at a dry cleaners in Arlington County and is making ends meet, paying $475 in monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington. She has applied for day care in anticipation of Cornilous's return.
But Monday, a court-appointed psychologist, John B. Mealy, testified that he believes there is a threat that Cornilous could suffer from neglect if Pixley is given custody.
Mealy recommended that Blankman be awarded permanent custody, though he said Pixley should be allowed to continue seeing her natural son in the weekly, overnight visits she currently enjoys with him.
On the stand yesterday, Pixley said she agreed "a little" with the psychologist's assertion that separation from Blankman would cause Cornilous to suffer, but she said that as long as he could continue to see Blankman during visits, she did not believe there would be any permanent emotional damage. But, she said, she was unsure as to how frequent Blankman's visits should be.
During cross-examination, Leslie Scherr, the attorney for Blankman, returned to the issue of how separation from Blankman would affect Cornilous. Scherr pressed Pixley as to whether she thought the 3 1/2 years he has lived with Blankman were important to Cornilous.
"I can't answer that," she said. "I don't know what's important to Cornilous."
"That's true, isn't it," Scherr asked and answered his own question: "You don't know what's important to Cornilous."
Scherr devoted much of his cross-examination to Pixley's finances, asking detailed questions about her income and monthly expenses, some of which she was unable to answer.
Pixley remained composed throughout the hour-long cross-examination.
After the day's arguments, Pixley's attorneys said she would be able to care financially for Cornilous should she get custody. And Hall said that finances should not even be a part of the case: "If we start deciding who gets children based on income levels, we have a serious problem."
Yet issues such as income and race have surfaced occasionally in this custody case pitting a white woman from a middle-class Montgomery County neighborhood against a black woman living in one of the District's most disadvantaged communities. Both those issues surfaced in yesterday's arguments.
Before Pixley took the stand, her attorneys called her aunt, Linda Lateef, to the stand.
Lateef broke down in tears as she told the court that African Americans have suffered through years of forced separations, evoking the era of slavery.
"What scares me is that he is going to be ripped away from my family, and we are never going to see him again," Lateef said.
CAPTION: Laura Blankman, center, talks with her attorneys Nancy Poster, left, and Leslie Scherr at Montgomery County court.
CAPTION: Latrena Pixley, left, talks with her attorneys Ralph Hall Jr. and Jennifer Evans after testifying in her custody case.