Jessica Leaves Home

ELLEN GOODMAN

July 30, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It's just about over now. The legal moving papers are in order. The change of parental address has been determined. The child has been told.

The very last ditch effort to delay the process that will turn Jessica DeBoer into Anna Schmidt was referred Wednesday to the full Supreme Court by Justice Blackmun after a dramatic appeal claiming that she would suffer ''unimaginable harm.'' But if that fails, the only thing left will be the packing.

By August 2, in all likelihood, a two-year-old girl will be transferred from her adoptive family to her biological family, from the people who raised her to the people who conceived her, from those she loves to those she doesn't even know. She'll be moved from Michigan to Iowa like a piece of furniture awarded in a property dispute. Only furniture doesn't feel loss or confusion.

For all the emotion surrounding it, this never was an easy case. In February 1991, an unmarried woman and the man she claimed to be the father gave a baby up for adoption. Weeks later, this despairing and regretful Cara Clauson told the biological father, Dan Schmidt, the truth. He decided to go after the girl and the adoptive parents decided to fight back.

The human story behind the case forced many of us to think about nature and nurture, about the rights of parents and the best interests of children. In the end, many were shocked at how little the child's view counted in the eyes of blind justice.

When Jessica DeBoer becomes Anna Schmidt, the people most deeply affected will be the host of maybe, would-be, might-be adoptive parents all over the country. They will be touched by another fear about adopting children they want to call their own.

What this case raises, after all, is the specter that in some places, in some circumstances, any biological parent who hasn't given up his rights can come in from the cold to claim a child.

In a most bizarre Florida case, two biological parents have pursued the daughter who was switched at birth. Since discovering the switch five years ago, a distraught Regina and Ernest Twigg -- who raised the other child until her death -- have virtually stalked Kimberly Mays. Now the fourteen-year-old is going to court to try and ''divorce'' the Twiggs on the very same day Jessica becomes Anna.

But the much more common, everyday, garden-variety fear is of the unknown father. After all, most birth mothers who give children up for adoption either don't know or won't tell who the father is. He may be a stranger or a one-night stand -- what some have called a sperm father.

She may not want him to know; he may not want to know. Dan Schmidt himself had fathered two earlier children. One he'd abandoned, one he'd never seen. Though he worked with Cara all through her pregnancy, he never asked if the child was his.

In real life rather than courtroom dramas, unwed or ''unknown fathers'' are rarely anxious for custody or even for identification. Paternity suits are, on the whole, filed by women pursuing men, not by men like Mr. Schmidt forging links to their offspring.

But in the law these days, equal rights have sometimes streaked ahead of equal responsibility. We share a powerful cultural desire to promote fatherhood, to nurture the nurturing men. In some places, the law has become too willing to distribute the full rights of fatherhood -- even to men who contribute only genes and the labor of lovemaking.

The appearance of a man like Dan Schmidt to stop an adoption and reclaim a child is rare indeed. But there is the real risk that his victory could become another barrier to would-be adoptive ,, parents, to adoption itself. There are too many barriers already. You can count them in the children who languish in foster care.

In the wake of this case, clusters of proposals are being considered for a new and uniform law that would strike a balance between the rights of fathers and the needs of children to be placed in caring, permanent homes as soon as possible.

In some, a known father's rights would hinge on how early he came forward and how willing he was to raise a child, not just to prevent adoption. In others, the rights of unknown, even unknowing fathers, would be terminated at some point -- perhaps 30 days -- so a child could become part of a family.

With luck we may yet learn from this terrible story. We may learn that the current law cares too much about biological ties and not enough about caring relationships. That it cares too much about parents' rights and not enough about children. That childhood is painfully short and the law is brutally sluggish.

But for the moment we only know this: Two years ago, an infant went before the courts; now the law has sent a toddler packing. They call this justice. I wonder what Jessica -- or should I say, Anna -- will call it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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