Adoptive mother tells painful story of 'Losing Jessica'

August 31, 1994|By Lucia Herndon | Lucia Herndon,Knight-Ridder News Service

Maybe it was just fatigue. Maybe the grueling pace of a multicity book tour had taken its predictable toll.

Or maybe it was the soul-weariness that comes with losing a child that made most of Robby DeBoer's responses to my questions seem flat and without inflection. "It's in the book," was a multipurpose answer to several inquiries.

Ms. DeBoer and her husband, Jan, captured headlines last year as they battled courts in two states to be allowed to retain custody of Jessica, a toddler whom they had tried to adopt as an infant in 1991. The Ann Arbor, Mich., couple finally had to relinquish the child to her birth parents, Dan and Cara Schmidt, who live in Iowa. Newspapers across the country showed pictures of the screaming 2 1/2 -year-old being driven away to a father she had never met and a mother who last saw her when she was a few days old.

The would-be adoption and custody battle wrenched the hearts of millions and left the DeBoers with an ache that will never go away, Ms. DeBoer said.

The couple has founded the DeBoer Committee for Children's Rights. Ms. DeBoer's personal response is a book, "Losing Jessica," that gives her account of the family's life -- from marriage, infertility, the attempts to adopt Jessica, and the heart break of losing her.

"I wrote the book for Jessi," she said during a recent interview. "So she'll be able to know about us later."

The couple has been ordered not to see the child, and apparently the Schmidts, who have changed the child's name to Anna Jacqueline, do not allow her to have the gifts and cards that the DeBoers have sent.

In February 1991, the DeBoers tried to adopt Jessica from Cara Clausen, at the time single and about to give birth. She identified the father as a man other than Mr. Schmidt, and together they signed away parental rights to the child, freeing her to be adopted. About a month later, the mother told Mr. Schmidt that he was the father of the child she released for adoption, and the two began the battle to have her returned. The Schmidts have since married and have another baby, Chloe.

"People think this is about adoption," Mr. DeBoer said. "It isn't. It's about custody and children not having a voice in the court. We fought not only because we love Jessi but because the system wanted to take a child away from the only family she had ever known. We didn't want her to lose her entire world -- her parents, friends, pets, toys. But that's the tragedy that's happened to Jessi."

Ms. DeBoer's book relates the court battles interspersed with diary entries and the minutiae of daily life with a baby. "I picked her up and took her downstairs for a bottle. Jessi and I enjoyed these times together. A sweet lullaby played in the background as we rocked, soothing me as well as Jessi. She fell asleep and I carried her back to her crib."

Losing Jessica was like a kidnapping, Ms. DeBoer said. "Every day I wake up and wonder how she is. Is she well? Is she happy? I have to believe that Dan and Cara are taking good care of her. I have to believe it, or I couldn't go on.

"Doing the book was cathartic," said Ms. DeBoer. "I spent so much time running events through my mind that I had to release them some way. I felt as Jessi's mother I wanted to reach out to her, to let her know that this situation is not her fault."

There are those who think the DeBoers are at fault, that the couple should have returned the child when the first hitch in the adoption process occurred before she was 2 months old. Ms. DeBoer said she considered that twice -- first when the mother said she had changed her mind and again a year later while the Schmidts were appealing a ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.

"The courts had terminated Cara's rights," Ms. DeBoer said. "They had not reinstated them, and Dan had not been determined to be the father yet. Jessi would have gone into foster care, not back to Cara."

While her husband believes that a grown-up Jessi might one day search her out, Ms. DeBoer does not. "I don't think she'll come to see us," she said quietly, her eyes moist.

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