By RICK CASEY
Copyright 2011, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
March 13, 2011, 11:17PM
Tina Porter went with hope to the 313th District Court one recent morning.
Patrick Shelton, the capricious judge who had denied her the opportunity to adopt her niece’s baby, was gone.
The new judge, Glenn Devlin, seemed more sympathetic. Devlin had invited her attorney to prepare a brief making every possible argument for Porter.
It’s a tough case. Shelton had rushed through an adoption of Porter’s great niece over Porter’s and her niece’s objections, despite the niece’s contention that she gave up her parental rights only after being assured by CPS workers that her aunt would be given a home study so she could be considered for the adoption.
Porter’s lawyer, Don Robinowitz, prepared a lengthy brief. First he argued that Shelton had improperly denied Porter standing to intervene. The law gives automatic standing to the baby’s aunt, but not to her great aunt. Robinowitz argued on several grounds that Shelton should have given her standing anyway.
But he also laid out a series of allegations suggesting that CPS had defrauded the mother from the beginning. He said that despite the fact that the mother is mentally disabled, she had been separated from her aunt at a court hearing, taken into a closed room and pressured to sign a paper giving up her parental rights without a lawyer.
Robinowitz argued that CPS plotted from the beginning to give the baby to another family and received the cooperation of Judge Shelton, who placed the baby with a foster family pre-cleared for adoption and ordered the mother and the Porters to have no contact with the baby.
Unaware of the other couple’s intentions to adopt, Porter pressed CPS for months to do the home study that would make her eligible. Whether through incompetence or design, the study was begun but not completed. The foster parents filed for adoption immediately after reaching the six-month minimum custody requirement, and Shelton scheduled the adoption for two weeks later, on one of his last days on the bench.
Robinowitz developed other evidence, including the possibility of a relationship between a key CPS worker and the adoptive family. He subpoenaed witnesses whose testimony was crucial to making his case.
He also laid out how CPS allegedly repeatedly violated state laws requiring that relatives be given priority for adoptions.
But when the day came, Judge Devlin allowed no testimony. The only issue to be dealt with, he said, was standing. And on that issue, he ruled against Porter.
But he did something extraordinary. He ordered both sides into an immediate mediation with former federal Judge Eric Andell, whom he had asked to be present. At first glance, the mediation seemed absurd. Both women desperately want the baby. Was Andell going to play Solomon?
But after several fruitless hours in which Andell took messages back and forth, the two women, both of whom have supportive husbands, spent about 20 minutes alone.
It was then that the adoptive mother, Audra Thakoor, told Mrs. Porter about being assured by CPS twice before that she would be able to adopt a baby she was foster parenting, only to lose them.
Thakoor said she felt misled, not having been told by CPS that relatives wanted to adopt Amy.
Both women wept.
After going home, Porter thought about how she had been able to love and raise six children, including Amy’s brother. But Thakoor had only this one, and she quite obviously loved her. (This is based on Mrs. Porter’s account of the meeting. An attempt to reach Mrs. Thakoor failed.)
Long, expensive battle
Porter left Thakoor a phone message and sent her an e-mail. Maybe they could work something out. She wanted assurances that the baby would get to know her family and have a relationship with her brother.
Porter didn’t hear back from Thakoor. Instead she received a threatening letter from Thakoor’s lawyer. If she didn’t drop her legal attempt to undo the adoption, they would countersue. She would face not only the expense of the fight, but would have to pay his fees if she lost.
Instead of intimidating Porter, the letter rekindled her resolve.
The next step, set for April 1, is a proceeding called a bill of review. That’s when Robinowitz can call his witnesses and lay out his fraud case. For the first time, CPS officials would have to respond under oath.
But even if Porter wins there, which is far from certain, it would be just the beginning of a long and expensive battle. And the Porters are not wealthy people.
Both CPS and Shelton deserve intense scrutiny for setting up what is a two-way tragedy that has brought uncertainty, anger, pain and expense to two loving mothers.