Jailed mother nears end to defiant silence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two presidents ago, Jacqueline Louise Bouknight went to jail for refusing to tell authorities where to find her baby son, who had twice been beaten badly while in her care.

Ms. Bouknight, now 28, is still in jail, steadfast in her failure to provide the boy's whereabouts. The child still cannot be found. Now, The Sun has learned, two out of three lawyers in the long, tangled case, including the attorney for the missing boy, finally agree that 6 1/2 years in jail for civil contempt is enough: It is time to set Ms. Bouknight free.

Ms. Bouknight is the longest-running resident of the Baltimore City Detention Center -- and the only one not charged with a crime. None of a number of law professors and lawyers interviewed could give an example of anyone who had been jailed that long for civil contempt.

It has been so long that her baby's eighth birthday passed about two weeks ago.

A foster child herself, Ms. Bouknight has been described by a Towson psychologist as being borderline retarded, and by those who know her as emotionally volatile. But her lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said Ms. Bouknight still "understands how long this has been more than anyone else.

"She has watched people come in and out of the prison doors who have committed heinous crimes," Ms. Gutierrez said. "Her struggle to keep any emotional equilibrium . . . has been difficult."

Ms. Bouknight's saga began when social workers failed to monitor her turbulent relationship with the child, Maurice Lorenzo Miles, for about seven months. Then they reported Maurice missing. After police checked out fruitless leads about where the child might be, Ms. Bouknight was ordered to jail for contempt of court, where she finally refused to help investigators.

The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court in a losing battle for Ms. Bouknight, who exercised her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

the state's interest in protecting children superseded that right. Since she had violated an agreement to produce the child, Ms. Bouknight could not use the Fifth Amendment to avoid the contempt order.

Four years after that ruling, the case has faded from view as completely as Maurice eludes those who seek him.

Normally the issue of Ms. Bouknight's freedom, vs. the court's power to jail her until she produces what it wants, would be open to public scrutiny. But the case is still considered a secret juvenile custody matter, cloaking its proceedings under Maryland law. Attorneys say they are not allowed to talk about it, and hearings have been closed.

That makes it impossible to tell how zealously arguments have been raised about Ms. Bouknight's constitutional rights to liberty, or what other circumstances may have arisen. Regardless of whether the arguments have been made or not, Baltimore City juvenile court Judge David B. Mitchell has not released Ms. Bouknight on his own initiative -- as he has the authority to do.

No proof found

After 6 1/2 years, Ms. Bouknight has served as much time as someone convicted of manslaughter, a conviction authorities might have pursued had they gathered sufficient proof to back up their suspicions. But they have not found such proof. Indeed, opinions among police, lawyers and others involved in the search for Maurice over the years are divided as to whether he is dead or alive.

Even advocates for abused and neglected youth, some of whom heralded the Supreme Court's decision four years ago as a victory for the protection of children, said this week it's time for the court to give up.

"I really think that she should be released now," said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland Law School professor and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth, which filed an amicus brief supporting the continued contempt order when the case was before the Supreme Court.

"If it hasn't worked after six years, it's not going to. . . . Now it's like you're punishing her for a crime you never brought charges on. In America, that's a scary thought."

Contacted last week, state Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler III, who has represented the Baltimore City Department of Social Services in the case for its duration, said "we have not yet taken a position on [the] question" of whether continuing to jail Ms. Bouknight will ever produce her child. He refused to discuss whether that issue was formally before the juvenile court.

"The importance of this case is that it absolutely established the principle that a parent's defiance of a juvenile court order is not protected by the Fifth Amendment," Mr. Tyler said. "Certainly it has been frustrating, if not tragic, that the object in this case -- to find the child -- has not been accomplished."

Sources familiar with the case say both Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who represents Maurice, and Ms. Gutierrez have filed motions in juvenile court arguing that Ms. Bouknight should be released. While they raise different issues, according to the sources, both maintain that the contempt order isn't working and isn't likely to.

Neither Mr. Mirviss nor Ms. Gutierrez would discuss the motions.

"All parties would agree that this case has had a long and tortured history," Mr. Mirviss said. "It's a shame Ms. Bouknight has unnecessarily wasted six years of her life."

He said, however, that "if anyone is outraged about this case, they should pause." What the public knows is far from complete, he said.

Ms. Bouknight's path to jail began less than two months after Maurice was born in October 1986, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia. X-rays taken then revealed fractures of the right arm, shoulder blade and socket. In February 1987, after a second hospitalization for broken bones, the Department of Social Services took Maurice away from Ms. Bouknight and placed him in foster care.

Enrolled in parenting classes

Ms. Bouknight won the baby back by attending parenting

classes and meeting other conditions, such as promising to produce the child for DSS at any time. A psychological evaluation of Ms. Bouknight recommended against the return, but it arrived too late for a juvenile court master to consider. When social workers caught up with Ms. Bouknight after losing track of her, she said the child was with relatives.

It is unclear what, exactly, she has told anyone about where Maurice is since then.

A police investigation of the child's whereabouts -- the one independent avenue that might have resolved the question -- has turned up nothing conclusive.

Judge Mitchell, who issued the order jailing Ms. Bouknight April 28, 1988, refused to discuss any motions pending in his court, or to explain why the case has not been resolved.

Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and an expert in civil procedure, said the law provides little guidance about how to tell when civil contempt has failed. Usually, he said, jail -- or the threat of it -- produces what the court wants.

"The law wasn't designed to deal with such a stubborn person," Mr. Hazard said. "How do you predict [the contempt] won't work? If you let her out, that means the court's nerve has failed, and she wins."

When Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, a Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon, spent 25 months in jail rather than reveal the whereabouts of her daughter, Hilary, her supporters raised such a clamor that Congress passed a law limiting time served for civil contempt in the district to one year. Dr. Morgan claimed that her ex-husband, Dr. Eric Foretich, had been abusing the girl, and so refused to allow his court-ordered overnight visits with her.

Ms. Bouknight, by contrast, has few friends, virtually no money, and a habit of distrusting and sometimes openly cursing authority figures. Her actions, including suspected abuse of Maurice, have made it difficult to determine her motives.

For example, shortly after being jailed for contempt, Ms. Bouknight was convicted in District Court of trying to pass a bad check taken from a doctor whose home she was cleaning. Around the time social workers reported him missing, she had attempted to use the check to pay part of a life insurance premium on her son, said Arnold Cohen, the United Insurance Co. agent who accepted the check in 1988.

Ms. Bouknight was sentenced to 18 months in jail. On appeal in Baltimore City Circuit Court, however, the conviction was thrown out, Ms. Gutierrez said. Court records on the appeal could not be immediately located.

Her siblings, broken up in foster homes off and on since Ms. Bouknight was about 5, have scattered. A former foster father and her attorney visit her in jail from time to time.

She has become a fixture in the normally transitory Baltimore City Detention Center. Fights and confrontations at the beginning of her incarceration landed her in a segregation cell, where stacks of mystery novels and a television fill her time, said her former foster father, John Brown.

In the 1700 block of North Washington St., where Ms. Bouknight lived with Mr. Brown, residents look up with curiosity upon hearing Ms. Bouknight's name, then shake their heads at the news that she remains behind bars.

Mr. Brown, now 78, took Ms. Bouknight in as a foster child from the time she was 12 or 13 and took care of her on and off over the years. She lived with him for some time before she went to jail, including the first months after Maurice was born. He said he is one of her few visitors now.

"She loved that baby," Mr. Brown said. "She just didn't know how to handle a baby. I would stake my life on this, that she didn't kill that baby. But I don't know where the baby is."

One afternoon several weeks before the formal investigation of Maurice's disappearance began, Mr. Brown said he came home to find Ms. Bouknight alone and neighbors saying the boy and all his possessions had been packed off in a blue station wagon with a woman they didn't know.

Lucille McFadden is one of those neighbors. But she said recently that she never actually saw Maurice get into the car that pulled up to the Brown house across the street. She does believe that the baby was given to someone else that day and is still alive.

Police have followed up that lead, along with others Ms. Bouknight gave them long ago, according to investigators in the case. None of them panned out.

During their visits, Mr. Brown said, Ms. Bouknight talks about life in jail, asks how the rest of the extended family has been, and wonders when she will be able to leave and find her own place to live.

"She has told me the baby's alive. She said, 'I would tell you where the baby at, but you would tell them . . .' She know good who she gave the baby to. It is kinda cruel though. If she had committed murder, in six years, they more or less would let her out."

Mr. Brown planned to visit the jail soon and find out what Ms.

Bouknight wants for Christmas. In past years, she has asked for something, like a radio, to connect her with the outside world.

"Somebody has to love her," Mr. Brown said. "What kind of person would she be if everybody turned against her? So I let her know I'm here."

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