HAGERSTOWN -- Sylvia and Michael Mauk are white. And that, they contend, is the main reason they lost Tiffany, the black foster daughter they raised for two years before the state took her out of their home and placed her with black adoptive parents.
The move, the Mauks say, violated their civil rights, with the state using their race to deny them the chance to adopt the girl. But more important, they argue, is that it damaged Tiffany, who was taken away in March 1992 crying, "I'm sorry, Mommy. I'm sorry."
The Washington County Department of Social Services says that race was only one of the factors it considered. More important, it says, was reuniting the little girl with her two older biological brothers.
The Mauks say talk of Tiffany's siblings only camouflaged a racially discriminatory decision to put the girl in a black adoptive home.
More than two years later, Tiffany is nearly 5, attending prekindergarten, reportedly happy with her new family. And a legal fight goes on around her.
In September, Maryland's second-highest court, the Court of Special Appeals, said that the social services agency's treatment of the Mauks was "reprehensible."
It agreed that the agency had committed "a grave injustice" to the Mauks when it removed Tiffany. And it noted that the trial court called race "the sole criterion" used in finding the girl a permanent home.
But the court said it could not help. Tiffany had been gone so long, the judges held, that to take her out of her adoptive home would only harm her more.
Now the Mauks are asking the Maryland Court of Appeals to review their case. They argue that the agency waited two years -- allowing Tiffany to grow attached to them and to the Mauks' adopted children, one black, one biracial -- before moving her. And then, they say, race was the reason.
Should they win on appeal, the Mauks say they will not ask for Tiffany's return if it's not in her best interests to move. But they still want the court to rule that race cannot be the determining factor in adoption.
"The kids are suffering," Mrs. Mauk said. "There are kids out there who are not being placed because of the color of the foster parents' skin."
The Social Services Department says that it routinely places children with foster parents and adoptive parents who are of a different race.
In Tiffany's case, the agency says the fact that she could be reunited with her brothers made the difference.
The fact that Tiffany's adoptive parents -- John and Frances Sandridge -- are black "was really the icing on the cake here," said Assistant Attorney General Shelly E. Mintz, who represents the social services agency. "The department found a fabulous home that would take all three children, and the fact that they were African-American was a real plus."
The overriding concern in placing a child for adoption, Ms. Mintz said, is always the child's best interests.
"You can look at an infinite number of factors, whatever is relevant. Can we say race is not a factor at all? No. That would be ridiculous. Race is a factor in life. Ask any African-American," Ms. Mintz said.
The issue has been debated nationally for decades, with the National Association of Black Social Workers leading the opposition to placing black children in white homes in most cases. Such policies, the association says, are "cultural genocide" for blacks.
But researchers, including Rita Simon, a sociologist at American University who did a 20-year study of interracial adoption, say that black children raised in white homes grow up with a healthy racial identity.
Beyond issues of race, children's advocates say that the Mauk case also raises another concern: that the courts take too long to deal with cases involving children.
By the time the Mauks had a ruling from the appeals court, Tiffany had already been in her new home for more than two years.
"We keep talking about how important children are," said Susan Leviton, of Advocates for Children and Youth. "But there's no priority. There's got to be a way to get immediate court review. Otherwise, these cases are not decided on the best interests of the child but simply on the length of time she's been somewhere."
'Always bubbling, laughing'
In the portrait that hangs in Sylvia and Michael Mauk's hallway, Tiffany is a cherubic 2-year-old dressed in red-and-white ruffles for Christmas, 1991. "Adorable," Sylvia Mauk whispered. "She was always bubbling, laughing."
The Mauks have been married 10 years. She is 42 and a homemaker. He is 36, a civilian electronics technician for the Department of the Army.
In 1988, they became foster parents to Janae, who is black, followed quickly by Dustin, who is biracial. The Mauks eventually adopted them both. And then, in July 1990, came Tiffany.
She had a rough start, born crack-addicted to a drug-abusing mother.
When she was about 6 months old, she and two older brothers were taken out of their biological mother's home and put in three foster homes.
A year later, Tiffany was prospering, her development reaching normal, a transformation the doctor credited to the Mauks' care.
The Mauks wanted to adopt her, just as they had adopted twice before.
But in March 1992, according to court testimony, the agency told the couple that it planned to move Tiffany to a home with black parents and her biological brothers. Staff members added that the Sandridges' race was a factor -- though the agency couldn't say how great a factor.
"They told us that when she was older she would hold it against us," Mrs. Mauk said. "And they said, 'What would we do when she was 16 and brought a white boy home?' And, see, we didn't have any problem with that.
"We would care if he was on drugs or something. About the color we don't care."
'She's very, very smart'
In court, Tiffany's pediatrician and caseworker testified that had they known the agency wanted to move the girl, they would have advised that it would not be in her best interest.
But the child reportedly has adjusted well.
Frances Sandridge, Tiffany's adoptive mother, said the girl scored high on a test given before she entered school. "She's very, very smart. She's very happy."
In the Mauk home, there are photos of Janae with her biological sister, little Jalisa, who visits often. There are photos of Dustin with all his siblings, who live in other homes. There are pictures of family friends, some black and some white. And still, on the walls, are photos of Tiffany.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services, which investigated the case, found in a July report that the evidence showed race was not the sole factor in moving Tiffany.
But Earl W. Bartgis Jr., the Mauks' attorney, who has been working on the case for two years for no fee, said the Mauks want to fight their case in the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to. "Our view is that race should not be a predominant factor" in deciding adoptions, Mr. Bartgis said as he sat in the Mauks' apartment. "When children are with a family for long enough time to make attachment, taking a child out of a home solely for race would do more harm than good."