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The child's welfare should come first

Cornelious Pixley, age 2, was the hit of last week's convention of the National Council for Adoption. A bright-eyed charmer, he is a poster boy for its gravest concerns.

He came in the care of Laura Blankman, a Montgomery County, Md., police trainee who has taken care of him since he was 4 months old. She took him home at the request of his birth mother, Latrena Pixley, who bore several other children, one of whom she killed at the age of 6 weeks. Pixley asked Blankman to look after Cornelious until she got out of jail.

Blankman fell hard for Cornelious and tried to adopt him. A Montgomery County judge ruled that Cornelious should be given back to his mother.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Michael Mason's decision set off a furor in the child welfare world. The bizarre case involves issues like the Family Reunification Act, transracial adoption, and the perpetual question of whether the mother's well-being takes precedence over the child's.

Pixley is black and Blankman is white. Pixley got a sentence of weekends in jail for three years from D.C. Superior Court Judge George Mitchell for infanticide. She was later jailed again for credit card fraud.

A small victory occurred lately when Mitchell, possibly abashed by the storm of criticism, twice visited the halfway house where Latrena Pixley lives and proposes to keep Cornelious. His honor talked with children of other inmates who were playing "jail" in the front yard.

Blankman is appealing the custody ruling. The National Council for Adoption passed the hat for her at a lunch devoted to a dialogue between adoption advocates and a press panel that consisted of columnist Mona Charen, herself an adoptive mother, author Michael Barone, an adoptive father, and your correspondent.

An invitation to vent on the current state of adoption produced a flow of frustration and anger. It's the press, said Linda Perilstein of the Cradle of Hope Adoption Center in Silver Spring, Md. "All the press wants," she said, "is a scandal a day, no good news, only the dirt." She sounded like a White House press aide.

The press is in low repute these days because of the White House scandals, which brought out the worst in everybody. Terminal tackiness was achieved when Insight magazine invited Paula Jones to this weekend's White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner _ at which Bill Clinton was the guest of honor.

The advocates made a good case that the press had given them a bad name. They cited the copious reporting on international adoptions gone sour, foul rumors about the sale of babies or baby parts. Why doesn't the media report the wonderful and true things that occur all the time _ like the adoption of legless twin boys by a U.S. vet who lost a leg in Vietnam? Or the long list of applications for Down syndrome babies cited by Mona Charen?

But nothing more shadows the cause of "legal creation of new families" than the record of bitter losses. They were personified at the convention by two martyrs of adoption: Roberta DeBoer and Kim Warburton, who took Baby Jessica and Baby Richard respectively when they were days old and lost them to birth parents in court. They told of their efforts to spare other women anguish like theirs.

"The courts think blood is thicker than love," says Cassie Bevan, a Capitol Hill aide who works on child welfare legislation.

Social workers have for a generation been in the grip of the misbegotten Family Reunification Act. Judges see only the children in court. Bureaucracy favors the tidiness and economy of reunification.

Charen said, "There is a prejudice against adoption _ choice advocates believe the adoption option for a woman faced with an unwanted baby undermines the case for abortion."

Social workers Annette Baran and Reuben Pannor detailed the new thinking in an article excerpted in a 1990s update of the famous feminist tract Our Bodies, Ourselves. "Relinquishment of children to a new set of parents, as a final irrevocable act, severing all rights of the birth parents, must be discontinued."

William Pierce, president of the National Council for Adoption, sees a dangerous trend in regarding adoption as a kind of extended foster parenthood.

The case of Cornelious would provide an early test of the amended Family Reunification Act. The DeWines amendment passed last year puts the child first. We will see how seriously the courts will take it. Cornelious will also take the measure of the still-new biracial adoption bill. Black social workers condemned it as "racial genocide," and Pierce says they are no less militant, just warier. There are approximately 100,000 children, mostly black, eligible for adoption.

We like to think of ourselves as a nation of child lovers. We can prove it by the way we treat children.

Universal Press Syndicate