A case of legal kidnapping

Mona Charen

December 10, 1992|By Mona Charen

It is a nightmare that has crossed the mind of every lovin parent -- losing a child. And it is happening to Jan and Roberta DeBoer of Ann Arbor, Mich. It isn't cancer or AIDS that threatens to take 22-month-old J. (her name cannot be used) from her loving parents -- it is the court system of the state of Iowa.

This happy, dark-eyed little girl, who adores her bear "Bo-bo" and who thinks the telephone is the best toy in the house, was adopted at birth. Everything seemed to go well for the DeBoers. The birth parents had signed all the legal papers. Jan and Roberta were ecstatic over their new daughter, having waited six long years for a baby. Since the adoption was inter-state, the DeBoers remained with their new baby in Iowa until a small army of social workers and state officials from both Iowa and Michigan had had a chance to approve the placement.

When they arrived home in Michigan about a month after J.'s birth (following the legally prescribed time to permit change of mind by the birth parents), the DeBoers received a call from their attorney. There was a small problem, he told them. It seems the birth mother had lied on her surrender forms about the identity of the birth father, and now the true birth father, together with the birth mother who had changed her mind, was seeking to gain custody of J.

When the baby was 6 weeks old, the DeBoers returned to Iowa for a hearing. They were ready. They would tell the judge the truth: that they loved J. completely, that the birth mother had failed even to show up for a hearing when her parental rights were terminated, and that the birth father had already abandoned two children, a 14-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter by an ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. He had failed to pay child support for his son and had never even laid eyes on his daughter. By court order, his wages are garnished to provide support for the daughter. At least one and possibly more women have filed paternity suits against the birth father.

Moreover, he was told three weeks after her birth that J. was very probably his offspring. (Besides, he worked with the birth mother.) Yet he did nothing to assert his interest in the child until the birth mother changed her mind and enlisted him as the front man in her effort to get the child back.

The court declined to hear any of this evidence. The best interests of the child, the Iowa courts have asserted again and again in this case, are irrelevant. The court awarded custody of J. to her biological father. But pending further legal action, including blood tests to establish biological paternity, the DeBoers were permitted to keep the baby.

By the time the blood tests had been completed, J. was 5 months old. Throughout this period, the birth father made no effort to see the baby, nor did he write to her or send her clothing or toys.

In December of 1991, the district court, acknowledging the birth father's "poor performance as a parent," nonetheless ruled that the father hadn't abandoned this child, and again awarded custody to him.

The DeBoers appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. The case took a year to be decided. J. is now 22 months old. Last week, the decision came down -- the district court was upheld. Unless the governor of Michigan, John Engler, or the Supreme Court of the United States intervenes, J. will be taken from her parents next Friday and handed over permanently to two people she has never met.

This amounts to a legal kidnapping. Even in cases of abuse, courts do not take children from their biological parents (which is a mistake, but that's another matter). Yet here, they are ready to break up a family because a late-arriving birth father has the correct genes. It's sad that the birth mother changed her mind.

But it would be a catastrophe to uproot this little girl. She now belongs to and with others.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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