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Where's Maurice?


BEFORE DAVID Carr, there was Ciara Jobes. Before Ciara Jobes, there was Shamir Hudson. Before Shamir Hudson, there was Rita Fisher. Before Rita Fisher, there was Maurice Miles.

The deaths of 2-month-old David, 15-year-old Ciara, 8-year-old Shamir and 9-year-old Rita made headlines because they were beaten and tortured by their parents or guardians. Their deaths were all the more tragic because a public agency knew that they might be at risk. Tormented by those expected to care for and love them, these children were instead betrayed by them.

Then there was Maurice. His fate remains a mystery, but it, too, might have been different if the child welfare system had properly carried out its duties.

As an infant, Maurice Miles was taken from his mother after a physician suspected she had abused him. Jacqueline L. Bouknight eventually regained custody, but child welfare workers failed to check up on them for seven months. When they did in April 1988, Ms. Bouknight couldn't produce her 18-month-old son.

Police suspected that Ms. Bouknight had killed him. She insisted that her son was in the care of relatives, friends - her story changed. Ms. Bouknight refused to reveal his whereabouts, and a Baltimore judge jailed her for contempt. She remained behind bars until 1995, her secret never publicly revealed.

Maurice would be 17 years old today. Jackie Bouknight is 37. She was in court recently, pleading guilty to a drug possession charge. After receiving a suspended prison term and probation, she sat at a sandwich shop, sipping coffee and spinning stories of her computer-literate son who she says is alive and well.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would." She says she went to jail rather than risk losing her son to the child welfare system. "If I had to stay 25 years, I would've stayed 25 years to protect my son."

From New Jersey to New Mexico, child welfare systems are under duress - overwhelming caseloads, too few social workers, poorly trained staff, outdated systems.

And why? Because we don't put a high priority on safeguarding children. Too many children find themselves at the mercy of adults ill-equipped to parent, yet we refuse to believe that some people are incapable of caring for a child. Children are returned to parents because society recognizes the importance of intact families and the unique bond between parent and child. But are we sacrificing children's safety in favor of parental rights?

In an imperfect, poorly funded system where reports of suspected child abuse number in the thousands, has a handful of deaths become the cost of doing business?

In the Bouknight case, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide if a child's right to be protected supercedes a mother's constitutional right against self-incrimination. The court ruled that Ms. Bouknight couldn't hide behind the Fifth Amendment. But she never relented.

Since her release from jail in 1995, Jackie Bouknight claims to have visited her son several times a year. She describes his likes and dislikes, but never with the specificity to be believed.

Ms. Bouknight won't say where Maurice is today; a court order remains in effect that places Maurice under the supervision of the state. "It's too risky. They'd try to snatch him or something," she says. "I had to explain to him why I couldn't bring him down here. He's older now. He thought I didn't love him or nothing. But he understands. ... I explained everything to him.

"He's alive. Just like you and me."

If only we knew that to be true.

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