'Baby Jessica' gives DeBoers view of pain

September 25, 1993|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

She was in danger of losing the child who meant the world to her. But Robby DeBoer took a break from legal battles last spring to fly to Los Angeles to meet with TV producers competing to turn her story into a movie.

She had compelling reasons. In exchange for the rights to their story, Robby and Jan DeBoer would be paid at least $200,000, according to a producer close to the negotiations.

By agreeing to cooperate, the DeBoers would also help ensure that their version would be the first and perhaps the only one told on TV.

What's more, had they said no, a TV movie would almost certainly have been made anyway -- perhaps one reflecting the point of view of Dan and Cara Schmidt, their bitter enemies in the custody battle over Baby Jessica.

The DeBoers ultimately signed on with producer Bernie Sofronski and ABC. The result is Sunday's ABC-TV movie, "Whose Child Is This? The War for Baby Jessica."

By rushing forward, ABC and the DeBoers succeeded in halting development of a competing movie by NBC. And now, the Schmidts will probably never get their side told by a network.

"Whose Child Is This?" has already provoked vehement objections from the Schmidts and their lawyers, who saw advance copies this week. But ABC and Mr. Sofronski insist they are not taking sides.

In a phone interview, Mr. Sofronski said: "That was never my question: the DeBoers vs. the Schmidts, who was right? . . . My interest was in the 2 1/2 -year-old girl, who had no rights and was ripped away from what she knew. I personally equate it to somebody being kidnapped."

Mr. Sofronski's movie sympathizes with the DeBoers. They are portrayed more favorably than the Schmidts. More importantly, they are usually at center stage -- giving viewers the chance to ride their emotional roller coaster, sharing their triumphs and feeling their pain.

By obtaining the DeBoers' rights, ABC and Mr. Sofronski were able to venture into their private lives, showing them in the bedroom and riding a motorcycle together. The Schmidts' scenes were based on public records and a March 22 New Yorker article by Lucinda Franks who spent time with both couples, which the Schmidts have attacked as unfair.

Conveniently, "Whose Child Is This?" omits material that might harm the image of the DeBoers -- such as the fact that Jan DeBoer lied about his education and minor criminal offenses on their adoption application -- while harping on the fact that Cara Schmidt lied about the father of her child when she first gave up the baby.

In fairness to Mr. Sofronski and ABC, "Whose Child Is This?" includes scenes showing the Schmidts as a loving couple. The movie also conveys some of their anguish.

"We understand why the Schmidts would want her back," Mr. Sofronski said. "We balanced it the best we could."

But, he conceded, the story was partially shaped by the deal with the DeBoers. "If we'd had the rights to both parties, we could have done it differently," he said.

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