A Montgomery County judge yesterday denied custody of Cornilous Pixley to his biological mother, LaTrena, who killed her infant daughter in 1992, saying that concern about the child's welfare outweighed the importance of reuniting mother and son.
Circuit Court Judge Louise G. Scrivener awarded sole custody of the boy to Laura Blankman, the Montgomery County police officer who has cared for Cornilous since 1996, when Pixley arranged for the boy to stay with Blankman while she went to jail for credit card fraud.
Scrivener ruled that Pixley, 26, has not established enough of a track record to be a full-time parent to Cornilous, who will turn 4 this month, despite indications that she has begun to turn her life around. The judge's order maintains the child's current living arrangements, in which he spends six days a week with Blankman, 29, who has raised him since infancy, and one day a week with his biological mother.
"Ms. Pixley impressed the Court as someone who is sincerely motivated to learn how to care for herself and her son," Scrivener wrote in a 10-page ruling. But she added later, "This Court cannot find that there is no likelihood of neglect of Cornilous where the track record of any type of stability and responsibility is barely begun."
Pixley's attorneys said yesterday evening that she was considering an appeal. "We're so disappointed, and our client is totally devastated. It's not what we were expecting or hoping for," said attorney Jennifer Evans, who said that Pixley said little but "burst into tears" upon hearing news of the ruling in a telephone conversation. Scrivener based her decision largely on the testimony of J. Burke Mealy, a court-appointed psychologist who evaluated both women, as well as their interactions with Cornilous, during a series of visits last summer. Mealy testified that he did not believe Pixley would abuse her child but said there was the potential for neglect if she were allowed extended periods of caring for her child.
That finding, the judge wrote, was sufficient to outweigh the presumption that favors biological parents under Maryland law. But she also cited Pixley's murder of her daughter Nakya, who was 6 weeks old when she was killed during what was later determined to be a bout of severe postpartum depression. In addition, Scrivener noted, Pixley's two older sons, Cornilous's half brothers, have been placed in other homes.
"Because of her history, Ms. Pixley's right to raise her son is of secondary importance. The safety and well-being of this child is paramount," she ruled.
Yesterday's ruling adds another chapter to a legal battle that started in February 1997, when Blankman filed for adoption of Cornilous. Later that year, Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason denied Blankman's adoption bid and said custody should revert to the biological mother.
Blankman appealed, and the case worked its way through the courts until the Court of Appeals last year ordered it sent back to Circuit Court to determine whether Pixley posed the threat of abusing or neglecting Cornilous. Allen Kruger, a family lawyer who is active in appellate work, said he believed Mealy's testimony as a court-appointed expert will make it difficult for an appeal to succeed. "I think there's almost no chance," said Kruger, whose practice is based in Laurel. "The judge clearly had a basis for making her decision."
Nancy Poster, who has represented Blankman for the past three years, agreed that Mealy's testimony was key, but she added that "everything that followed kind of bore out the observations that he made."
Pixley's attorneys, however, said they believed the judge gave too little weight to concerns they raised about negative actions taken by Blankman, such as seeking to change Cornilous's name and making unilateral decisions about the child's upbringing without consulting his biological mother.
The two women first met when Pixley was on trial for Nakya's murder and Blankman was working for the public defender's office in the District. They became reacquainted when Pixley was about to give birth to Cornilous, and Pixley asked Blankman to care for the infant when she was sent to jail.
Pixley's attorneys argued in court that Blankman had planned all along to take advantage of Pixley's troubled past to gain custody of the little boy. Blankman's attorneys argued that she sought to gain custody out of concern for Cornilous's well-being.
Both women declined to comment yesterday. Poster said Blankman was "very, very happy and very relieved."
Scrivener also urged both women to put their conflict to rest. She ordered both of them to attend at least five sessions of family therapy.
Blankman's attorney said she has no plans to renew the adoption case, adding that she intends to abide by the letter of Scrivener's decision, which finds that it is in Cornilous's best interests to maintain a relationship with "his mother," Pixley. For an adoption case to succeed, Blankman would have to prove that it would be in Cornilous's best interests for Pixley to be removed from his life.
Blankman Awarded Custody
LaTrena Pixley lost her bid yesterday for custody of her 3-year-old son, Cornilous. A Montgomery County judge has given sole custody to Laura Blankman, the Montgomery County police officer who has been raising him most of his life. A look at how the case evolved:
June 1992: LaTrena D. Pixley, 19, admits to smothering her 6-week-old daughter and dumping the body in the trash.
June 1993: Pixley pleads guilty to second-degree murder in the killing of her daughter. In a controversial ruling, D.C. Superior Court Judge George W. Mitchell sentences Pixley to three years of weekends in a halfway house and probation.
January 1996: Cornilous is born to LaTrena Pixley.
May 1996: Pixley is convicted in federal court of credit-card fraud; Pixley asks Laura Blankman, a Montgomery County police trainee, to care for Cornilous.
January 1997: Mitchell cuts Pixley's jail term short so she can begin a residential counseling program.
February 1997: Blankman files for adoption of Cornilous, saying that Pixley is unfit.
April 1997: Pixley is jailed again after failing to report to the halfway house.
November 1997: Pixley is released from jail.
December 1997: Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason awards Pixley legal custody of Cornilous.
July 1998: The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upholds Mason's decision.
August 1998: The Maryland Court of Appeals agrees to hear the Pixley custody case.
February 1999: The Court of Appeals overturns Mason's decision, ruling that Mason erred in awarding custody to Pixley. The case is sent back to Circuit Court for a new trial.
January 2000: Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Louise G. Scrivener awards sole custody of Cornilous to Blankman.