Adoption battle brought unwanted fame to the Murphys and their 17 children A Special Kind of Family

October 31, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

LAKE CITY, GA. — Lake City, Ga.-- Driving down the gravel path, past houses with American flags on the front porch and Ford pickups in the driveway, you find Jeanette and John Murphy sitting under the shade of a gum tree. Lullabies from a child's recorder drown out the sound of car engines. Mrs. Murphy rocks 14-month-old Noah on a swing, while Cody -- a 2-year-old who loves music and green tennis shoes -- dances around his father.

A young family in a sleepy Southern town savors one of the last warm days of the season. That's the picture from a distance, at least. But to draw the Murphy family properly, you'd need a much larger canvas, one with room enough for 17 children, 13 of whom are adopted -- 11 with Down Syndrome.

You'd also need to illustrate somehow the heartache this family has faced: the children -- Rachel, Hope and Megan -- who have died of complications from the condition; the survivors -- Jimmy, Angel and Jeremy -- who have undergone open-heart surgeries, tracheotomies and amputations; and youngsters like Jonathan who now confront leukemia.

But most difficult, say the Murphys, have not been the surgeries, illnesses or setbacks. Most painful of all has been the custody battle for Cody, which put the Maryland natives in the national spotlight, making them the subject of talk shows, idle town gossip and tonight's CBS movie, "No Child of Mine." (It airs on WBAL-Channel 11 at 9 p.m.)

"I knew people didn't always understand our life," says Mrs. Murphy, 41. "I just never realized that we'd have to defend it."

That's what she and her husband have done since getting caught in the legal cross-fire between Cody's birth parents, who asked the Murphys to raise Cody, and his birth grandparents, who wanted to raise him themselves.

The Solomon-like struggle has made unwilling celebrities of the publicity-shy Murphys, whose lifestyle has been admired, debated and ridiculed in this suburb of Atlanta.

In one camp are those who see them as saviors, giving their home and their lives to disabled children, many of whom would be institutionalized otherwise. In the other camp are critics who question the Murphys' motives and ask whether this couple -- or any couple -- should raise 17 children.

"We're trying to be servants," Mr. Murphy, 43, says simply. "We're not trying to be the Messiah."

As he speaks, Jeanette Murphy sways gently, a subtle movement that hints of the time she spends rocking children in her arms. Mr. Murphy tosses a football to 8-year-old Brandon, whose knack for finding lost shoes, lost schoolbags and lost permission slips has earned him the family nickname "Mr. Find It."

There's much to entertain them around this nine-bedroom rancher on 2 1/4 acres: two basketball courts, a trampoline, a swimming pool, a shingled playhouse and volleyball net. There's even a separate slide (as well as a staircase) that leads to the basement.

It's after 3 p.m. and the school buses are dropping off the Murphy clan. Ten-year-old Angel, who's blind, comes home with Kool-Aid packs from school. Lindsey, 6, shows off her Halloween lollipop. And 14-year-old Christian, one of the couple's four biological children, heads to his bedroom in the basement to change out of his bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirt.

Cody, meanwhile, rides the swing in the back yard, gleefully oblivious to the maelstrom that has swept around him.

The war over Cody began in 1991, days after he was born with Down Syndrome. The Murphys were asked by his birth parents to raise him, but soon learned his birth grandparents were trying to intervene in the adoption. (The birth parents are raising Cody's twin brother, Casey, who does not have the condition. They still keep in touch with the Murphys and see Cody regularly, the Murphys say, although the couple has been hesitant to talk to the press.)

For nearly a year, the battle raged in the media and the courtroom, the crux of it being: Who had more right to the child -- his grandparents or the couple selected by his biological parents?

Ellen McCarthy, the birth grandmother, took her story to lawmakers and the media -- appearing on the "Montel Williams Show" and "Sally Jessy Raphael" -- and becoming an advocate (( for grandparents' rights.

"The Murphys had 16 children," she says. "We couldn't understand why they'd want a child that the grandparents wanted."

Accusations flying

At times, accusations flew. In one newspaper article, the McCarthys' lawyer said the Murphys were "running a warehouse for children."

To fend off the suit, the couple spent $5,000 in attorney's fees. Mrs. Murphy lost 10 pounds, and Mr. Murphy found himself facing questions about why he gave up his job as a licensed practical nurse years ago.

"We ended up defending ourselves so much," says Mrs. Murphy, 41. "I felt like I never wanted to go out to the store because someone would walk up and say, 'I recognize you.' It was like someone was out to destroy what we were living for."

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