2-year-old girl is at center of tug-of-war between birth-father, adoptive parents

September 04, 1994|By Elsa C. Arnett | Elsa C. Arnett,Knight-Ridder News Service

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Emily Welsh, a cherubic 2-year-old with little blond ringlets framing her face, frolics in her room tossing stuffed animals, doing backbends off her crib and tumbling on the carpet.

"Where Puffy . . . where Puffy?" she asks, scurrying in search of her well-worn stuffed dog.

As Stephen and Angel Welsh of Plantation, Fla., gaze at their spirited toddler, they are struck by a feeling of joy. And terror.

Little Emily is not an ordinary child; she is the latest to be caught in a fierce, high-profile custody battle between her adoptive parents, who have raised her since she was 3 days old, and the man who helped give her life.

In a case that could go to the U.S. Supreme Court, the fight over "Baby Emily" is quickly becoming a groundbreaking struggle between the rights of the biological parent and the best interests of the child.

On one hand, Emily's birth-mother, Linda Benco of Boca Raton, gave her up for adoption and chose the Welshes as her adoptive parents. The Welshes welcomed Emily into their home and say they feel as close to her as any biological parent could.

On the other hand, Emily's birth-father, Gary Bjorklund of Pompano Beach, Fla., is seeking custody over Emily because, he has said, she was put up for adoption against his will. He says he wants his little girl back.

But complicating the issue is her birth-father's past criminal history. He was convicted of rape 17 years ago and served his sentence. In addition, the birth-mother has said he abandoned her during her pregnancy and she believes he is an unfit father.

Last Sunday was Emily's second birthday. It marks two years of bitter court clashes, failed mediation efforts and tears on both sides.

Caught in the middle of a legal and moral dilemma is a cheerful, curious little girl who goes about her daily life oblivious to the storm around her.

By all outward observations, the Welshes appear to be a happy family, and Emily seems content and well-adjusted.

"When I looked at her and held her for the first time, I felt a bond to her like I had never felt before; I was overwhelmed with a sense of love and peace," said Mrs. Welsh, 35, an elementary school teacher.

Emily came into the Welshes' lives after 11 years of marriage and many unsuccessful years of trying to conceive a child. Though they were thrilled by the possibility of adoption, they were also cautious about the process.

"Adoptive parents take a lot of emotional and financial risk; we walk into it with open honesty, we want to be parents, but we want to do it legally and do the right thing," Mrs. Welsh said.

So when the controversy over Emily began to brew soon after they finalized the adoption, the Welshes braced themselves for a protracted fight.

"I just couldn't imagine what life would be like without her; it would be tragic and I don't think I would ever get over it," Mrs. Welsh said.

Though Stephen Welsh said he would also be crushed by the loss, he said he had searched his soul and decided he would give Emily to her biological father if he thought it would be best for her.

"Our goal is not to hurt the birth-father, it's to take care of Emily," said Mr. Welsh, 36, a theatrical design engineer. "My overriding concern is to provide Emily with a stable, loving, supportive home, and with her biological father's past history, I just do not believe he can provide that.

"Emily knows this house as her house, and she knows us as her mommy and daddy," he said. "To rip that security and sense of place away from her and change her name for what would result in a custody battle between her birth-mother and birth-father, where she would likely be put in a foster home, only to be adopted by another family is mind-boggling to me."

The most painful aspect of such a separation, said Mrs. Welsh, is the long-term impact she thinks it will have on Emily.

"She is so grounded in our lives now, it just breaks my heart to think of her lying in her bed at night and calling out for us, and I just couldn't be there for her," she said, breaking into tears.

The most recent development in the case came in June, when a state appellate court ruled in a 2-1 decision that Emily's birth-father was wrongfully denied his parental rights to her.

The Welshes have requested that all 12 judges in the 4th District Court of Appeals rehear the case. If it is not taken by the court, the Welshes plan to take the case to the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

In the meantime, the Welshes are busy lobbying state legislators to clarify adoption laws and to put teeth into the statute protecting the best interests of the child.

Until the court makes its decision in coming months, it is an anxious waiting game for both sides.

Though the Welshes do a good job of shielding Emily from the stresses of the custody case, the fight has taken a toll on them. They said their savings were drained and they were emotionally strung out.

"There's a part of me that is physically shaken all the time," said Mrs. Welsh. But, she added, "You have to learn to take every second of every day and treasure it because it's all so precious."

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