Who is Jessica's real father

Mona Charen

January 11, 1993|By Mona Charen

TWO-YEAR-OLD Jessica DeBoer, the little girl identified a few weeks ago in this column as "Baby J," has been given a reprieve. The Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that the child, adopted at birth, must be handed over to her biological father, whom she has never seen.

In broad outline, the facts of the case are these: Jessica's biological mother, unmarried at the time of the birth, gave the baby up for adoption and submitted a false name for the birth father. Later, she changed her mind about the child and contacted the true biological father to enlist his help in getting the baby back. He filed a court action, claiming that his parental rights had been terminated without adequate notice. And even though almost two years had passed, during which time Jessica had totally bonded with her adoptive parents and vice versa, the courts in Iowa (where the child was born) ruled that the girl be handed over.

Never mind that the biological father had already abandoned two other children he fathered, and never mind that tearing a child away from the only home and family she has ever known would be a ghastly piece of child abuse.

There is now a new development in the case. Last week, a court in Michigan (where the DeBoer family lives) held that Michigan has jurisdiction over the case and will hold a hearing to determine the best interests of the child.

The DeBoers are ecstatic, believing that once Jessica's interests are taken into account, any thought of removing her from her loving family will be abandoned.

But it's far from over. The birth parents (since married) are seeking to get into federal court to resolve the conflict between the two states. This could take years.

How is this mess possible? This isn't really a case of miscarriage of justice so much as it is of misbegotten laws. Before the mid-1970s, courts gave short shrift to claims by non-married biological fathers. But the intervening years have seen an explosion in the number of legally recognized rights and a corresponding diminution in emphasis on responsibility. Many states, Iowa included, demand proof that the father has abandoned the child before his parental rights can be terminated. (However, a dissenting judge on the Iowa Supreme Court denied that in this case the biological father's rights had been violated under Iowa law.) Other states, like Ohio and New York, require putative fathers to show some active interest in their offspring, for example by registering within 30 days of the birth at a probate court or with an adoption agency.

What we are really talking about here is responsibility. James Albers Jr., general counsel of the National Council for Adoption, is impatient with talk of fathers' rights. "Look," he explains, "if you're fooling around with a woman, you know she might get pregnant. I call it the 'pants-on notice.' When he puts on his pants and heads out the door, he has notice."

That kind of bracing talk is too little heard in juvenile courts, where judges cower before the almighty biological tie. ABC legal specialist Arthur Miller, discussing this case on "Good Morning America," was typical of the prevailing view. "None of us would want our children taken away from us by the state without due process," he said. What nonsense. Mere sperm does not a father make. If a man is sincerely interested in his potential offspring, he should be required to show it. The old code of honor required marriage. Today, we should demand at least that he demonstrate some interest during the pregnancy, not two, or six, or 24 months after the birth.

Dan Schmidt, the biological father in this case, claims that he didn't know the child was his until after she'd been placed for adoption. But he worked in the same building with the birth mother and saw her pregnancy progress. That's notice aplenty.

Admitting he made mistakes, Mr. Schmidt asks for another chance. But he is thinking only of his own needs, not Jessica's. When is this country going to return to the simple idea that adults must accept responsibility for their behavior?

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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