When Cynthia Morin speaks of the fear of losing her three children, she draws her lips taut and narrows her gaze in a mask of determination.
For four years, Ms. Morin, 44, an emergency room nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, fought to rescue the children from their cocaine-polluted, AIDS-shattered life. After their mother died in 1992, she grappled with bureaucrats and family members to adopt Terence, Charlene and Anais.
Still, her battle isn't over.
Leaders of the state chapter of the NAACP -- citing the white nurse's adoption of the black children -- are criticizing the way social services officials handle interracial adoptions. This month, they plan to ask Gov. Parris N. Glendening to investigate. And they are continuing to follow individual cases, pressing for more consideration of blood ties, and racial and ethnic factors in adoptions.
That's part of a continuing debate over interracial adoptions.
The National Association of Black Social Workers, for example, calls such adoptions culturally harmful to black children and the black community at large. But Baltimore social services officials and the national NAACP leadership say they do not follow that view.
Ms. Morin counters, "My family is in a unique position to be advocates for people of all races to come together. I'm going to fight to preserve that."
For more than two decades, any notions of motherhood took a back seat to Ms. Morin's commitment to serve others.
During a 1982 stint in Honduras with the refugee relief organization Concern America, she saw a colleague's slaying by terrorists, and was herself held at gunpoint, blindfolded, bound and thrown into the back of a truck. She fought off two attacks by her captors and was released after three days. After nearly a decade as a volunteer nurse in Africa and Central America, she came to Baltimore in 1987 to pursue a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health
By early 1990, Ms. Morin, who has never been married, began to see motherhood as a way to "share the good things I have." She applied to become a foster parent.
Later that year, social workers asked her to pick up 5-day-old Anais "Neecee," at Liberty Medical Center.
At the time of Neecee's birth, social workers doubted the ability of her mother, Lisa Brown, to take care of the baby and her two siblings, Terence and Charlene. But by December, Ms. Brown was deemed willing and able to resume caring for the children.
Distraught at the prospect of separation, Ms. Morin told social workers she would help Neecee and the family. "I knew the message got through two days later when Lisa called, asking if I could baby-sit," she recalls.
That began an unusual relationship between the two women: one the University of California at Los Angeles-educated product of the privileged class, the other a promising young woman battered by the 1986 slaying of her brother, a descent into drug abuse and a destructive relationship with the father of Charlene and Neecee.
Trust between the women grew as the nurse took Terence and Charlene along with Neecee on baby-sitting outings.
When she discovered that Terence was not going to school, she enrolled him, paid his tuition, and began driving him daily to and from Calvary Lutheran School.
"She bought the kids bikes and taught all of them to ride," says friend Jennifer Jinot of Washington. "She always took the time to pay attention to them and find out what their real needs were." And she began to sympathize with Ms. Brown's struggle to give up drugs.
"Nov. 2, 1990, was her sobriety day," Ms. Morin recalls. "Becoming sober absorbed her entire life. She went to meetings, took the kids to meetings, every day, sometimes more than once."
"She was outgoing and friendly and articulate once she got off the drugs."
In a will written just days before her May 1992 death from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Ms. Brown asked Ms. Morin to adopt her children when the time came.
After Ms. Brown's death, social workers at first favored a quick adoption by Ms. Morin. But inquiries by relatives of the girls' father, Charles Cobb Sr., prompted a re-evaluation. By late 1992, they were asking Ms. Morin about visits -- and eventual adoption -- by the girls' aunt, Dorothea Groves. That hit Ms. Morin hard. And the visits did not go well -- especially a Christmas 1992 trip to visit Mr. Cobb at the clinic where he was dying of AIDS.
His sister, Mrs. Groves, contends that the court and Ms. Morin sabotaged her chance to adopt the children. Hearings in July 1994 led to approval of Ms. Morin's adoptions in December.
"I had two other brothers who died, and since we have their kids, it's like we have a part of them," Mrs. Groves says, adding that she can't afford a lawyer to press the issue. "But we have no part of Charles because ynthia has all his kids." a,5 Judge Thomas E. Noel said he believed Ms. Morin would be the better parent. "I was impressed by Ms. Morin, impressed with her dedication to the children and impressed by what she has been able to achieve with them." The children appear to have blossomed in Ms. Morin's picturesque six-bedroom Hamilton house, shared with a gimpy dog named Sparky and several rotund cats.
Terence has turned his attention to matters like figuring out how many mice to feed his pet python. When she's not practicing gymnastics, Charlene can usually be found wrestling with computer adventure games.
And 4-year-old Neecee follows her siblings everywhere, mischievously hiding and popping out to surprise them.
Charges of bias
Still, the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says the family's case shows a pro-white bias by social workers.
"We've been bombarded by calls and concern from throughout the state," President W. Gregory Wims said at a January news conference. "Too many judges find white adoptive parents better qualified than black families."
He says the group has identified at least six Maryland cases in which social services agencies favored white adoptive parents over blacks, including some relatives. And he has accepted an offer from the Baltimore Department of Social Services to meet once his group completes its investigation.
American University Professor Rita Simon calls the NAACP charges ludicrous.
"Anyone who cares about kids has to favor transracial adoption if it's the only way to get kids out of foster care -- and it usually is. Even with the best will in the world, black families can't adopt all the black children in need," says Ms. Simon, the author of several books based on her study of 206 adoptions.
Professor Sandra Jackson of the University of Maryland School of Social Work disagrees. She has worked to help city social workers stress the "kinship" concept -- helping to persuade and enable extended families to care for children. She testified in support of Mrs. Groves' adoption efforts. "I'll bet a paycheck that by the time that boy is 13 or 14, he'll be living with the Groves family. He will need the images only they can give him," she says.
Cynthia Morin is conscious of the critics who say interracial adoptions deprive black children of the connection with their African-American heritage. But she says, "I celebrate our differences. . . . When they're a little older, we'll all go to Africa."
It will be a homecoming of sorts for the nurse who spent almost four years in the Peace Corps in Zaire, teaching public health.
For Neecee, even the obvious differences are not so obvious. Ms. Morin recalls that when she tried to explain the variation in their skin color, Neecee turned up her palms and said there was no difference.
"At first I didn't understand," the nurse recalls. "Then she took off her shoes and socks and showed me the soles of her little feet. We just laughed and laughed."