Woman wins visitation rights to abandoned girl

Saturday, May 22, 2004

BALTIMORE -- A woman who says a little girl abandoned to strangers is the daughter she hasn't seen for almost two years has won visitation rights, her attorney said Friday. Attorney Gary Gerstenfield said beginning next week, Patricia A. Harper, 21, of Washington, D.C., will be allowed to visit the child under the supervision of the city's Department of Social Services. At the same time, she'll begin to seek legal custody, he said. The child will be reacquainted slowly with Harper. The hunt for the 3-year-old's family began last week and seemed relatively simple at first, based on information from the little girl: Her name was Courtney, she was from Brooklyn, N.Y., and she wanted her mommy.

Things became much less clear when Harper and Robert A. Persons came forward separately, claiming to be the child's parents.

The case has become "very complicated," State Human Resources Secretary Christopher McCabe said Thursday night. "We're still looking to patch together the story."

The girl remained with a foster family Friday.

Harper claims the little girl's name is Akasha and her father is Persons, of the Brooklyn section of Baltimore. The couple began dating in 1997, when Persons was 30 and Harper just 14, according to Gerstenfield.

Persons was convicted of statutory rape in Prince George's County, a Maryland suburb of Washington, because of the relationship and served a year in jail, the attorney said.

After his release, the two resumed dating. Akasha was born in July 2000.

Persons and Harper had an informal custody arrangement until Persons went to court and filed a complaint accusing Harper of abusing the child and him -- and of being involved in drugs and the sex industry, Gerstenfield said. Harper's lawyers deny those allegations.

A judge gave Persons custody at a 2002 hearing Harper did not attend.

Harper won another hearing after telling the court a letter notifying her of the first hearing had gone to the wrong address. At the second hearing, she won custody, Gerstenfield said.

Persons, however, took the girl to the Baltimore area, Gerstenfield alleges.

The little girl resurfaced after a woman contacted authorities May 5, saying a man had left the girl with her while he went to cash a check -- and never came back.

Two days later, Persons and four others were arrested in a raid in Baltimore, according to court records. Persons was charged with possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. He was released Thursday on $250 bail.

There was no phone listing for Persons at an address listed in court documents. He has not obtained a lawyer, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources.

The state's attorney's office, meanwhile, is trying to figure out if Persons could be charged with kidnapping. Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said it depends on whether Persons had custody of the girl when he took her.

Authorities have interviewed Persons about the little girl, but have not disclosed any information.

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