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    The past in his future

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    Photos by DOUGLAS CLIFFORD of the Times
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 7, 2002

    Center of custody dispute

    Turns 3 in July, lives in Largo. Adopted at birth by Jim and Sandy Mills. Alabama Supreme Court ordered his return to Alabama.
    Biological mother

    Gave birth at 17, during senior year in high school. Has not asked for custody. Lives in Luverne with grandparents.
    Biological father

    Fathered baby at 17, during senior year of high school. Never signed adoption papers, asking for custody at urging of his mother. Looking for work in Georgia.
    Brandy’s mother, stepfather

    Forbade Brandy from dating a black man. When stepfather discovered she was pregnant by a black man, issued ultimatum: Give up the baby, or give up your family.
    Fernando’s mother

    A widow, none of her other children had given her grandchildren, thrilled Brandy was pregnant. Helped with prenatal care. Devastated when Brandy adopted out her grandson.
    Nurse, arranged adoption

    Warned the Mills that Fernando had not signed adoption papers, but said she thought he had forfeited his rights by not supporting Brandy during pregnancy.
    Adoptive parents

    Live in Largo, adopted Andrew just after his birth in July 1999. Were advised there was some risk to their adoption.
    LUVERNE, Ala. -- Two-lane roads snake past pine trees and lilacs leading into "The Friendliest City in the South."

    With two stoplights and 2,500 people, Luverne exudes small-town charm. There's no Wal-Mart. At Annie's, regulars feast on heaping plates of chicken dumplings, white beans and collard greens. At Luverne High, home of the Tigers, you can find principal Earl Franks and assistant principal Doug Brown personally sanding and buffing the maple floors.

    They're proud of their school, which began accepting black students in 1971. Now, with 70 percent of the town white and 30 percent black, students of different races learn together, eat together, play together.

    But when a white girl became pregnant by her black boyfriend, the couple discovered they had gone beyond the town's unwritten boundaries. Her parents kicked her out of the house and cut all ties.

    Scorned and confused, she decided that placing her baby for adoption was the way out. She found hope, 436 miles away, with Jim and Sandy Mills, a couple in Largo still getting over the death of their child. A judge signed the adoption papers and the Mills drove the newborn they had named Andrew back to Largo.

    For nearly three years, the story seemed destined for a happy ending. But now a new ending is being written. The Alabama Supreme Court recently stripped the Mills of their rights to Andrew.

    No matter which side wins, a boy too young to understand what is happening could find his entire life changed -- all because of his olive skin.

    * * *

    Fernando Pickett dazzled classmates playing wideout on the 1997 Alabama state championship football team, and every position but center on the basketball team. Confident and handsome, he was raised by a pair of church-going schoolteachers.

    Brandy Smith could handle a basketball, too. She started at point guard on the girls' team and earned all-state honors playing clarinet in the marching band.

    The 17-year-olds were inseparable in the hallways at Luverne High School and at the Amoco station on Route 331, where their classmates gathered on Friday nights. Brandy's mother and stepdad, Sonya and Joe Knox, got wind of their relationship and were adamant. Their white daughter would not date a black man. As Joe Knox put it:

    "I have nothing against black people. But I do not believe in black and white together."

    Brandy and Fernando were forbidden to talk on the telephone. Sonya Knox sat her daughter down and gave her an ultimatum: If you date a black man, you'll be kicked out of the house.

    Brandy denied having a relationship with Fernando; her mother believed her. But then came the day in February 1999 when Sonya Knox discovered a note her daughter had written to Fernando. She was pregnant.

    She had hidden it for five months. Nobody suspected, because she was hardly showing. But now mother confronted daughter. "She could not deny it," Sandy Knox said.

    "She knew what would come of this. We told her if that ever happened she could not live under our roof."

    Brandy considered an abortion but her mother, a registered nurse, said that would be difficult entering her third trimester. She would have to travel to Wichita, Kan., the closest place to get an abortion that late in pregnancy.

    "After we decided nothing could be done, we decided to tell her stepfather," Brandy's mother said.

    Brandy's biological father had left when she was an infant. Joe Knox was the only father she knew. He was furious, and his word was final.

    "We don't have anything to do with her," he said. "And I do not allow her in my house."

    * * *

    Brandy moved between relatives. Though cut off from her family, her mother offered advice.

    "I knew Sandy Walker," Sonya Knox said. "I worked with her for years. I knew she had set up several adoptions. We contacted her. It was what Brandy wanted to do. And there was no way she could raise a child on her own."

    Around town, Walker commanded respect -- not an easy feat in the deep South for someone raised in New Jersey. She played shooting guard for Ohio State and now worked as a cardiovascular clinical nurse specialist. She coached girls basketball, softball and volleyball, was a trainer for the Luverne High football team and was married to Dr. Pat Walker, who would sit with terminal patients and play checkers as they neared death.

    Many saw Dr. Walker's clinic as a place where pregnant girls could find support at dire moments.

    "We are not an adoption agency," Sandy Walker said. "A young girl presents herself and she says, "I need help. I want this child to have a good Christian home. Help me! I don't want anybody to know. Help me!' The good Lord sends a perfect match. We match."

    Walker knew just the family who could help Brandy.

    Jim and Sandy Mills of Largo had lost their first child, 5-month-old David, to complications from a heart defect in 1998. The Millses had attended church with Walker's sister, and now she e-mailed from Alabama that a baby needed a home.

    Sandy Mills asked her husband if they should take the baby. It had been only six months since they lost David; Jim thought it was too soon to adopt. But he didn't throw away the e-mail. He put it in a basket next to their computer.

    Where Andrew was born

    Population 2,500, about 70 percent white, 30 percent black. Progressing on integration but still hanging on to past. All seven churches in town, for example, remain segregated.
    In the days that followed, his wife spied him picking it up and putting it down, picking it up and putting it down. Finally, he said yes.

    "I kept thinking this poor kid might not have anybody," Jim said.

    Fernando's contact with Brandy ended after the pregnancy became public. He already had begun dating another girl. When an assistant principal confronted him and told him he needed to accept responsibility, Fernando denied that Brandy was pregnant. He denied he was the father.

    Sandy Walker assumed Fernando had no interest in the child and would not object to the adoption. All she needed was for him to sign the adoption papers. What she didn't figure was that Fernando's family had different plans.

    * * *

    Fernando talked loosely about the pregnancy at school, but he could never get away with that at home. He knew better than to fool with his mother.

    Ruthel Pickett taught head start classes in Crenshaw County. She volunteered with Cub Scouts and PTA. When J.W. Pickett died, leaving her a widow, she kept the family together.

    A biracial grandson would be welcome in her home; she would help raise him. Pickett's three older children had yet to give her grandchildren. At age 51, she looked forward to a grandson.

    Though Fernando had begun dating another girl, it was Mrs. Pickett who drove Brandy to the doctor. When Brandy shared that she was afraid that the responsibility of caring for a newborn would derail her dreams of going to college, it was Mrs. Pickett who volunteered to raise him until she graduated.

    Things changed, though, in Brandy's eighth month. She stopped calling Mrs. Pickett.

    As Fernando's sister, LaChinya Pickett, recalled, "My mother was taking Brandy to the doctor, and all of a sudden contact stopped and we heard that Sandy Walker was trying to get the baby adopted."

    Walker summoned Fernando to the courthouse to sign the adoption papers, but he never did. Instead, he took a paternity test.

    That same month, he got his new girlfriend pregnant. And Brandy went into labor.

    * * *

    photo How long before Andrew understands that adults are fighting over him? Says Walker, who arranged the adoption: The Mills "would not have Andrew if they weren't special. That combination was made in heaven."


    Sandy Walker, the nurse turned matchmaker for young women and couples who want to adopt their babies, played the role of de facto judge.

    A month before the baby was born, she warned the Mills their adoption was anything but tidy. Fernando hadn't signed the adoption papers. Legally, he could seek custody, and the Mills could lose a second child.

    But she told the couple Fernando's written consent would not be needed because he had failed to care for Brandy during her pregnancy; she said his "actions spoke louder than words."

    Invoking the Old Testament story of King Solomon, Walker said, "I will not cut the baby in two."

    "I won't destroy that kid. The baby's best interest is with a mommy and daddy. He won't be at auntie's or grandmom's."

    The baby came July 6, 1999. Afterward, Brandy asked to see him. She rocked him, and she let her grandmother hold him, too. Her mother missed the moment, though, choosing to be on vacation.

    Fernando and his mother did make it to the hospital. But Brandy refused to let them see his son.

    Built in 1932, Luverne High became fully integrated in 1971.
    Four days later, the Mills came to the hospital and named the child Andrew. Three days after that, a judge signed the papers and the Mills drove home to Largo, now a family of three.

    Though they knew Fernando had not signed the papers, they prayed the adoption would work out. They felt the baby was "God's will" and pushed forward behind their faith.

    "We were well aware of the dangers and risks," said Sandy Mills. "But we were confident we would work through it."

    December came, and the results of the paternity test proved Fernando was the baby's biological father. All he needed now was an attorney.

    * * *

    Meet A. Wesley Pitters, Esq., a civil rights attorney who wants you to know about his strategically located address in Montgomery: "Can you imagine me purchasing a piece of property across from the Governor's Mansion 30 years ago?"

    His office is a tribute to African-American history. A portrait of the Tuskegee Airmen greets visitors to his lobby. His library offers everything from Harper Lee to Malcolm X. His desk faces a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    Pitters said he was compelled to take up Fernando's cause in what he calls a "clear civil rights depravation case."

    "This is the South and this girl committed the cardinal sin," he said. "This baby is a disgrace to the family, and it is not going to stay in Luverne and be raised by her. As long as it is here, it will be a permanent reminder."

    Pitters says nobody considered the Picketts might want the child. He said he tried to arrange for Fernando to at least have a chance to visit his child, but the Mills called their attorney and asked that no more contact be made. They had their lawyer ask the Alabama courts to terminate Fernando's parental rights.

    Everyone came to Luverne for the juvenile court hearing in April 2000. Brandy testified that she had been "confused since the first day" about what to do with the child. In an open letter the month before, she had said she wanted Fernando's mother to have custody. But now she testified that Andrew would be better off with the Mills because they are "a two-parent household and could provide for the child financially."

    Pitters argued that the Picketts should not have to justify how they will care for their blood relative.

    The judge awarded custody to the Mills, and they went home to Largo, relieved. The legal documents kept coming, though. In August 2001, an appeals court upheld the decision. But in late February this year, their attorney called with news that the Alabama Supreme Court had ruled that Andrew should be returned to his father.

    The court said Fernando Pickett had "vigilantly pursued" his legal rights to establish a relationship with his child.

    The justices have since ordered that the two sides try to settle the dispute through mediation. They are scheduled to meet in Montgomery on April 19.

    Luverne United Methodist and other local churches remain segregated.

    * * *

    Andrew Mills is 2 going on 3, come July. Oblivious to the controversy, he likes to test his father by throwing a softball atop his bunk bed and crying for him to retrieve it.

    Jim Mills would like to please his son, but at 50 the elementary school teacher has to think twice about scaling the bunk bed. So he boosts his son, only to find a larger dilemma. How's he going to get Andrew down?

    Mills barely stands 5-foot-6, and he cuts the figure of a middle-aged man. He's amazed by his son's evolving athletic ability: the way he hits the ball, pedals his bike and outruns him in the back yard.

    Sandy Mills can tell you exactly how much white grape juice to mix with Andrew's water. She can show you where he took his first steps, recite his first words -- "Da doo" -- and show you a picture of Andrew during every month of his life.

    Every time she thinks of losing him, she hugs him tighter. Many days she walks around the house holding him.

    "When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he cries for mommy," said Sandy, who is 40. "And when he wants to play ball, he asks for daddy."

    When the conversation turns to the potential outcome of the legal proceedings, her pitch turns high, her words quicken, her tears flow. She's a wreck. Though her husband told the Picketts not to contact them, it bothers her that they haven't sent a birthday card or asked for a photo.

    "I would want to see a picture of you," she says, looking into Andrew's eyes. "I would be begging for a picture of you. They haven't asked for a picture."

    Brandy's grandmother, JoAnn King, says Brandy is haunted by the brief moment she held the child and has asked to see pictures of her son. "She says that there is never a night that goes by that she does not think about him."

    Last month, Brandy left the University of Alabama. She is back home living with her grandparents and did not want to be interviewed.

    Mrs. King said that despite Brandy's regrets, the child is better off in Florida. Luverne may have come a long way, but some issues aren't black and white.

    "The child is a mixed race," said Mrs. King. "I don't feel like the child would have a good chance in Crenshaw County. So many people ... they just don't think that is the way it should be."

    Fernando left his second college last fall and was in Georgia recently, hunting for work. His daughter, Alexus, turned 2 last week. Though Fernando is no longer with Alexus' mother, she says Fernando supports her.

    Neither Fernando nor his mother, Ruth Pickett, wanted to be interviewed.

    Brandy's mother wishes things had been different.

    "I think about him. That's my grandson," Sonya Knox said. "If the child had been between two whites, we would have adopted the child. Living in the town we live in, it's really frowned on."

    -- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or

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