Law system not to blame in baby Jessica battle

WILEY A. HALL

August 05, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

It is a picture that haunts me like a bad dream: Jessica DeBoer crying in terror as she is wrenched from the home, the life, the people she has known all of her 2 1/2 years; wrenched away by a distant and seemingly unfeeling court decree.

The heartbreaking spectacle Monday ended a two-year tug-of-war between the Schmidts, Jessica's biological parents from Iowa, and the DeBoers, the Michigan couple who had raised Jessica almost from birth and who had been trying, without success, to adopt her.

It all began in February 1991. Cara Schmidt, then single, had originally planned to put her newborn up for adoption. She had identified the infant's father -- the wrong man, it turned out later -- and he had relinquished his paternal rights. The DeBoers had taken custody of the infant, pending completion of the adoption proceedings. So far, so good. The DeBoers named their new child Jessica.

But then Cara changed her mind. She told the true father of his paternity, married him, and together they fought to get their baby back.

The battle, both in and out of court, quickly assumed a philosophical dimension: Who has the strongest claim, the biological parents or the people who have nurtured the child all her young life? And where and how, in this parental tug-of-war, do the rights and concerns of the child come into play?

Courts in Iowa and Michigan awarded Jessica to her biological parents on the grounds that no legal adoption can occur without the consent of the true father. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene.

And so, the scene was set for Monday's drama. As Jessica was taken from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tears streamed down her face and she called, "Mommy! Mommy!" to the woman the courts have decreed is not her mommy. She was whisked away to a new life and a new home in Blairstown, Iowa. She even has a new name. Goodbye Jessica DeBoer. Hello, Anna Schmidt.

I am not the only one who was profoundly moved by this incident. One children's rights advocate declared that the courts had treated Jessica like chattel. Others worried that the decision had thrown the legality of every adoption into question. And many, many people used the occasion to call for all sorts of legal reforms.

But I see this case in much less apocalyptic terms. In my view, it is just one of those sad things that occur when people are unable to find room for compromise on their own, and the courts are forced to step in.

What kind of new law would have prevented this mix-up, anyway?

The whole dispute would have been avoided if the mother had not lied about the identity of the father or changed her mind about the adoption. So, do we pass a law prohibiting biological parents from lying, or from being confused or uncertain during what has to be one of the most difficult decisions a mother can face?

At the same time, Jessica's trauma certainly would have been lessened if the DeBoers had voluntarily surrendered the child when the biological parents changed their minds, within weeks of Jessica's birth. So should we consider a law prohibiting custodial parents from becoming emotionally attached to a child until after the adoption is final?

Does anyone seriously want to change the presumptive rights that go to the biological parents? At the same time, are we really prepared to further undercut the emotional bonds that develop between a child and the people who nurture and care for it -- whether they are biological, foster, or adoptive parents?

The baby Jessica (now Anna) case illustrates the tragedy of everyday existence. It reminds us -- those of us who need reminding -- that people sometimes are confused, frightened, or uncertain; that they can be stubborn or just plain wrong in the decisions they make.

Lawmakers can patch loopholes in the adoption system -- or any system -- when they occur, but will never be able to craft a law that can anticipate every situation. The courts can attempt to resolve disputes as best they can, but sometimes nobody wins.

Neither legislators nor jurists can protect a child like Jessica from pain when the lives of the adults around her are in turmoil. That is not a failure of the system. That is just a fact of life. We can only hope the healing has already started.

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