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Case of Missing Boy Becomes Test of Fifth Amendment Rights

The Washington Post

Maurice Miles was born Oct. 3, 1986, in Baltimore, the son of an unwed mother who was borderline retarded and a father who peddled drugs on street corners before being shot to death.

By the time he was 4 months old, Maurice had been hospitalized twice with a broken arm, thigh, shoulder blade and shoulder socket, and a possible spinal cord injury.

Even while he was immobilized in a full-body cast, according to a court petition, “his mother was observed throwing him into a crib on one occasion and shaking him profusely on another.”

Returned to Mother

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The state took custody of Maurice after his second hospitalization, but he was returned to his mother seven months later--despite a psychologist’s report warning against it.

Then he vanished. No one in authority has seen the boy for nearly two years--and his mother adamantly refuses to say whether she knows where he is, for fear of being charged with child abuse.

Now the strange case of baby Maurice Miles has become the focus of a Supreme Court case that asks: Which is more important, the boy’s safety or his mother’s constitutional right not to incriminate herself?

The answer is important, observers say, because it will help determine the extent of the power of juvenile courts to protect battered children in such circumstances.

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The case has also prompted renewed criticism of Baltimore’s troubled, state-run Department of Social Services. The agency was supposed to monitor Maurice’s care by his mother, but lost track of the boy, then waited more than half a year before alerting the police.

Baltimore police at one point handled the matter as a possible homicide, but detectives could find no solid evidence that Maurice was dead. The case was turned over to the department’s youth division and remains unsolved.

Maurice’s mother, Jacqueline Bouknight, 23, described by one of her attorneys as immature and “extremely limited” intellectually, has been locked in the Baltimore City Jail since April, 1988, for contempt of court for refusing to disclose his whereabouts.

She has not been formally accused of a crime. But in an unusual civil proceeding, Bouknight, on the advice of her attorneys, has refused a Baltimore juvenile court judge’s order that she produce Maurice--or arrange for him to be found--so the state can retake custody.

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Fifteen months ago, the judge ordered her locked up until she changed her mind. Bouknight’s attorneys appealed to Maryland’s highest court and won an order releasing her. The state then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered her kept in jail until it reviews the case this fall.

Bouknight’s situation bears some resemblance to the well-publicized case of Elizabeth Morgan, a physician jailed for civil contempt in Washington, D.C., since 1987 for hiding her 6-year-old daughter in defiance of a court order giving visitation rights to her former husband.

Throughout Bouknight’s time in jail, one of her attorneys said, she “has always denied that any harm has come to the child.”

But because police suspect Maurice was harmed or even killed by his mother, Bouknight’s attorneys argue, their client would be supplying evidence against herself if she admitted having control over the boy and it turned out he had been abused. Compelling her to produce her son violates her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, attorneys contend.

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If the Supreme Court agrees with Bouknight, “then it means the risk to children in this country will be substantially increased,” because other parents in such situations could hide their children and invoke the Fifth Amendment, said Ralph S. Tyler III, an assistant Maryland attorney general who is seeking to keep Bouknight in jail.

Tyler, echoing numerous child-welfare advocates, said the power to coerce uncooperative parents by jailing them is the most potent weapon available to juvenile court judges in trying to rescue battered youngsters.

“Frankly, we’re going to be in a real mess” if Bouknight prevails, said Judge W. Don Reader of Stark County, Ohio, president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I think the court, as a practical matter, loses its power to protect a child--and protecting children is what we’re in business for.”

The state, in court petitions, argues that the Fifth Amendment does not protect Bouknight from the judge’s order that she surrender Maurice--just as it does not protect citizens from certain other “potentially incriminating, state-compelled actions,” such as standing in police lineups or supplying court-ordered blood samples.

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Even if the Fifth Amendment does apply in Bouknight’s case, she still ought to be forced to produce Maurice, the state says. The “juvenile court’s statutory duty to protect this abused and neglected child outweighs his mother’s constitutional privilege against self-incrimination,” the state says.

Bouknight’s attorneys said the state has succumbed to “hysteria” in its concern about the case’s potential impact on juvenile courts.

There are other ways besides civil contempt for authorities to put pressure on a parent in Bouknight’s situation, said George Burns, one of four Baltimore public defenders representing her. For instance, he said, they could use criminal prosecution.

Burns said, for example, that laws “in virtually every state” make it a crime for a parent willfully to cause a child to become “in need of assistance” from a social services agency. He said Maryland authorities could charge Bouknight with criminally creating such a situation for Maurice by having concealed him.

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Rely on Criminal Statutes

If the Supreme Court rules for Bouknight, he said, “it won’t be devastating at all. It’ll just require (states) to rely more on criminal statutes, and not go the easy way with civil contempt.”

Burns also disagreed that the state’s duty to protect Maurice “outweighs” his mother’s Fifth Amendment right--a right that one of Bouknight’s other attorneys called “part of the backbone of our due-process system.”

The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with Bouknight’s attorneys and ordered her freed Dec. 19, after eight months in jail. But U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist granted an immediate stay, keeping her locked up.

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Meanwhile, where is Maurice?

Attorneys on both sides say the Baltimore Department of Social Services’ failure to keep track of him is partly to blame for his disappearance.

Cristina Gutierrez, another of Bouknight’s attorneys, said Social Services’ handling of the case left her “appalled as a parent and appalled as a citizen.”

In January, 1987, when Maurice was hospitalized for the second time, the social services agency was notified of the possibility of child abuse, according to court documents.

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“From what I know about my client, her limitations might render her guilty of child neglect and an inability to learn parenting skills, but not a battering,” Gutierrez said of Bouknight, who was not criminally charged with child abuse.

“Her IQ is borderline retarded,” Gutierrez said. “She grew up in and out of foster care, and she was basically left hanging. I don’t think she even finished the seventh grade. . . . She has no skills at all.”

Gutierrez recently arranged for her client to be interviewed in jail for this story, but canceled the meeting, saying Bouknight was too distraught.

When Maurice was born, Bouknight was living in her grandfather’s well-kept row house on Baltimore’s North Washington Street. The infant’s father, Terrance Miles, a convicted small-time drug dealer, was shot to death in 1988 at age 22.

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Began Counseling Sessions

After Maurice’s second hospitalization, the social services agency obtained a juvenile court order placing him in foster care. Bouknight, meanwhile, followed the agency’s advice and began counseling sessions with a clinical social worker, according to court petitions.

A juvenile court judge scheduled a hearing for Aug. 18, 1987--seven months after Maurice had been placed in a foster home--to decide whether he should be returned to his mother, under monitoring from the agency.

An attorney involved in the case, who asked not to be identified, said the judge’s decision was to hinge on a psychologist’s evaluation of Bouknight.

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After meeting with her, the psychologist wrote: “She is not now able to relate constructively to her child, since the child is seen as fulfilling her needs rather than the reverse. She becomes totally frustrated and enraged to find herself unable to gain from her child what . . . she lacked in her own childhood. When her frustration mounts, she is likely to act out toward the child.”

Court records indicate that because of a bureaucratic snarl, the psychologist’s report was not available for the hearing.

Protective Supervision

Nonetheless, with no objection from Social Services, the judge put Maurice back in his mother’s custody. Bouknight signed an “order of protective supervision” that required her to refrain from striking her son and to cooperate with social workers.

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A few weeks later, on Sept. 4, 1987, a caseworker assigned to supervise Bouknight visited the row house on North Washington Street for the first time.

“Maurice appeared well-fed with good affect and hygiene,” according to the agency’s chronology, which is included in court records.

Four days after the first visit, a Social Services parenting aide stopped by the row house. “Saw mother and child,” reads the entry for that day, Sept. 8, 1987.

No one in authority has seen Maurice since.

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From Oct. 13, 1987, to April 7, 1988, social workers visited the row house nine times but never saw Maurice, according to the chronology. Bouknight often was not home. When she was home, she told them that her son was with an aunt but refused to disclose the aunt’s name.

Called Relatives

Finally, on April 7, a caseworker told a supervisor about Maurice’s absences. The chronology indicates a suddenly frantic effort to locate him starting that day. The caseworker called clinics where Maurice had been treated, asked colleagues if they had seen him, and called or visited “every known relative” of Bouknight’s from Baltimore to North Carolina.

“There was a plan, when this child was returned to his mother, that he’d be watched over and protected, and these things weren’t done,” said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor and director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group. “What was going on all those months? What were these (social workers) thinking? What were they doing?”

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The Baltimore agency has been criticized often in the past after children under its supervision were abused by their parents or in foster homes.

J.C. Shay, a spokesman for Maryland’s Department of Human Resources, said the department’s social services agencies across the state are monitoring about 6,000 children who live with their parents under orders of “protective supervision,” as Maurice was. Citing confidentiality laws, he declined to discuss the Bouknight case.

On April 12, 1988--seven months and four days after Maurice had last been seen by anyone from Social Services--the caseworker reported him missing to Officer Charles Klein of the Baltimore police.

‘Why Did You Wait?’

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Klein recalled recently that when the caseworker told him he had not seen Maurice for seven months, “I came about four feet up off the floor. I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, are you for real?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said to him, you know, ‘My God, why did you wait so long?’ ”

Klein said he “never got a straight answer.”

A few weeks later, after Bouknight failed to produce Maurice, a juvenile court judge sent her to the Baltimore City Jail, and there she remains.

How long she will stay locked up is unclear. Civil contempt orders are intended to be coercive, not punitive. At some point, if Bouknight’s attorneys can persuade a judge that the coercion has failed and that their client will never give in, she could be released.

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In the meantime, she waits for the Supreme Court.


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