Many Americans remember the “Baby Jessica” case. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a Michigan Supreme Court decision to return a child to her birth father (who was by then married to her birth mother) after two and a half years with adoptive parents who had cared for her since very soon after her birth.
The case caused outrage across the country. Media accounts railed against the courts for failing to consider the best interests of the child by taking into account the trauma a move would cause her. The birth parents were portrayed as irresponsible and selfish people who would take the child from the stable home and prospects offered by the adopting parents.
It’s a nightmare to imagine a two-and-a-half-year-old child losing everything and everyone she has known. It’s easy to imagine the incredible grief of the couple who had to give up the toddler who called them Mommy and Daddy.
Beyond individual consequences, the case influenced the world of adoption. Many would-be adoptive parents were scared off. Many more turned to international adoption as a way to avoid birth parent complications.
Many states began to require more effort to notify birth fathers and secure their consent to the adoption. Some states required that a notice be run in the newspapers for a certain amount of time before it could be deemed that the birthmother was the only parent who needed to relinquish. Other states began a “putative father registry” where a man could leave contact information and say that he would want to be notified if a birth mother tried to place a child of his for adoption.
Is the nightmare of Baby Jessica and her adopting parents an inevitable risk for would-be parents considering adoption? No. There are many facts about the Baby Jessica case which most people in the general public are not aware of. Media attention, as I have mentioned, favored the adoptive parents.
The basic facts of the case are: birth mother Cara Clausen arranged to place her child for adoption with Roberta and Jan DeBoer. She signed relinquishment papers 40 hours after delivery. Cara assured her fiancé Scott that he was the father of her child. Scott also signed papers consenting to the adoption and the child went home with the DeBoers.
So what’s the problem? Cara knew Scott wasn’t the father. Within a week after delivery her conscience led her to call Dan Schmidt and tell him about the child they had conceived. Schmidt was horrified when he learned of the adoption placement and sought to have his daughter placed with him, saying truthfully that he had never signed anything relinquishing his parental rights.
This situation came to light within a month after the baby’s birth. The DeBoers, Michigan residents; and Dan Schmidt, a resident of Iowa (where the baby was born and Cara Clausen signed relinquishment papers) began a series of legal battles that would take over two years. During this time Cara Clausen left her fiancé Scott and married Dan Schmidt.
What the media did not emphasize here was that the adoption was never completed. (Fewer than one percent of completed adoptions are contested.) Many adoption workers and attorneys say that when Dan Schmidt asked for custody when the baby was less than a month old, the DeBoers should not have continued appeals for two years and that this choice resulted in more emotional pain for them but also for the child.
I really feel for the DeBoers’ here. I know that it is traumatic for a child to be moved at any age. I also know that my two girls, moved at eight and twelve months, are doing great. I know that I was fiercely attached to my newborn son. When he was nine weeks old I was hospitalized unexpectedly for three days. My mother said he didn’t seem unusually traumatized while she cared for him, but she noticed his muscles immediately relaxed and he ate and slept better when I came home. So my heart says I don’t know if I could follow advice to cede custody of a month-old baby quietly. My head says that knowing when the law is against you is the difference between an adoption loss heartache and an adoption nightmare.
Other noteworthy aspects of the struggle between the DeBoers and the Schmidts include the fact that it was an independent adoption rather than an agency adoption. Independent adoptions are legal in some but not all states (In 1992 they were legal in Iowa though not in Michigan). Agency adoptions require counseling for birth parents before relinquishment, and false statements are less likely.
Also, in the Schmidt-DeBoer case, the birthmother signed away her rights 40 hours after the birth, when Iowa law required a 72-hour waiting period.
Postscript: “Baby Jessica”, now known as Anna Schmidt, was interviewed by several reporters as she approached her teen years. At twelve, several reporters wrote that she seemed happy and well-adjusted and said she did not recall her time with the DeBoers. Dan and Cara Schmidt divorced in 1999, but Anna and her younger sister Chloe spend time at both parents’ homes.
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