by Lorraine Dusky
This amounts to a legal
kidnapping.,.. they are
ready to break up a
family because a late arriving
has the correct genes. "
"It's the same as
if you said to any parents: I want your two year-
old. Give her to me." The New York
"'It's an outrage to take a child away after
two years of bonding with her parents,' said. ..a
lawyer. 'It's a travesty of justice.'" The
Detroit News, 4/21/93.
Last spring and summer the media bombarded the public with stories about the heart-breaking story of two worthy, attractive people in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Roberta and Jan DeBoer, who were being unjustly forced to return to her natural parents the little girl they had raised since she was less than a week old.
"Robby," as the press liked to familiarly call her, was unable to bear children due to an illness contracted— horrors—on their honeymoon. We were all primed to pity the poor childless couple who only wanted to raise "their" little girl in peace and not be bothered by a less than-telegenic father, who didn't even know the child was his until after she was born, and an unmarried woman who changed her mind about relinquishing her daughter after she fell under the influence of a cult-like group of fanatics.
What the media didn't tell about the story formed public opinion for the DeBoers and against the girl's parents, Cara and Dan Schmidt, who were effectively painted as low-lifes for wanting their daughter back. Dan Schmidt, it was endlessly pointed out, is, of all things, a trucker (i.e., lower class). The clear implication was that this alone was reason enough to not let him have a child he so clearly wanted.
Initially omitted (and always buried) in the news reports was that Cara Schmidt began asking for her child back within four weeks of giving birth. Also glossed over (or not mentioned at all) was that Cara Schmidt missed Iowa's three week deadline for changing her mind about the adoption by merely five days. If this had happened in another state, such as California where a woman has six months before the decision to relinquish her child is final, Jessica would have been immediately returned.
Also not mentioned: that Cara Schmidt had signed the relinquishment papers 40 hours after the child was born, at the time believing that the attorney for the DeBoers was her attorney. Once Dan Schmidt learned that he was the girl's father, he joined Cara in the fight to get their daughter back, all within a month of the girl's birth. The DeBoers were in defiance of the Iowa Supreme Court when they began their battle in the Michigan courts. When the Schmidts went to Michigan and asked for the sheriff to help them get their daughter back, they were refused and told if they acted alone they could be arrested. You practically have to be a private eye to ferret out this information.
The second of People magazine's heart-strumming cover stories on the case devoted 16.7 column inches to interviews with the DeBoers and 5.5 inches of quotes by psychological experts and others who supported them. In contrast, the Schmidt's side of the story got only 5 inches, and expert backup, 2.3 inches.
The New Yorker gave the DeBoers a major boost in an error-ridden piece by Lucinda Franks, who recently adopted an infant and who is married to the 74-year-old Manhattan District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau. Although she herself is an adoptive mother—and thus a writer with a personal bias—this was not revealed. (Before we go any further, understand that I am a mother who once relinquished a child for adoption. More on that later.)
The Schmidts' attorney in Iowa, Jackie Miller, says that when she called Franks they had a five-minute conversation and Franks obviously did not want to talk to her; another attorney who was present at the time of Franks' interview with the Schmidts, Pam Lewis, says Franks ignored what actually happened in the Iowa courts and instead used Roberta DeBoer's misleading fabrications in quotes to tell the story she wanted.
This technique—stacking the quotes—was used aggressively throughout the months the story captured the nation's attention. But while the print stories were biased, they could hardly compare in emotional scope to seeing a hysterical, sobbing Roberta DeBoer interviewed on television by reporters who never asked follow-up questions, never doubted the DeBoers' version of events. The hard questions were seldom—if ever—asked: Why didn't you give her back in the first place? You had her for less than three weeks at the time. "Why did you fight the court order to have a blood test for five months? If your concern was for the child, why did you defy the first Iowa court order to return her? Even if you don't like the father, doesn't Cara Schmidt have some sort of moral claim to raise her daughter? Yes, you're in pain now, but didn't you set this up yourself? Six separate court decisions were against you, and the only one that was in your favor was quickly overturned.
DeBoer supporters and attorneys (who often turned out to be adoptive parents themselves) managed to plant in the media the concept that since they had kept Jessica for so long—in defiance of court orders, remember—they were now entitled to keep her because the transition would be difficult for her. This concept was called "children's rights." Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who has become a custody expert (partly through the difficult time she had adopting two children as a single woman), managed to instill the idea into the public consciousness that because Jessica was being returned to her natural parents, she was being treated as "property." No one said anything about yes, indeed, property, as in "possession is nine-tenths of the law."
Except for a few instances, only in the letters to the editor from adoptees, did you learn that being raised by genetic strangers, i.e., being adopted outside the family, is not quite the same—regardless of income—as being raised in a home where your real parents were also what the media had now reduced to "blood parents." An expert with those views, Marshall Schechter, M.D., co-author of Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self as well as other writings on adoption, was interviewed at length by Isobel Wilkerson, the New York Times reporter who covered the Jessica case. Yet he was never quoted in the Times.
What is going on here? We are in the midst of an adoption frenzy in America that has turned into a class war. One one side, we have middle- class baby boomers who delayed having children and are now unable to conceive; on the other, we have generally lower-class girls and women, the disposable suppliers of the commodity so desired: healthy, white infants, who are increasingly hard to come by. And with independent adoption being relatively unrestricted in 34 states, an army of adoption attorneys has grown up, an army designed to serve their clients, the ones who pay the bills: the adoptive parents.
The result is that adoption today is not a service for infants who need homes— there are plenty of those, but they are not the healthy, white infants that are prized—but has instead become a service industry for couples who want to adopt. The competition is fierce: estimates as to how many couples there are for each healthy, white infant range from 23-to-one to 40-to-one. And just like always, money talks. Money can put you at the head of the line.
And while we think it is awful—and unlawful—if a woman "sells" her baby to the highest bidder, we only nod in wonderment when we hear about attorneys' fees and related costs that can go as high as $75,000 for actually acquiring a baby. Is this not buying a baby?
Feminists, academia, the press and the attorneys themselves come largely from the same group of people wanting to adopt, or their parents, and almost always promote adoption as an absolute social good. They argue for laws that would get the babies out of the hands of the poor wretches who have them as quickly as possible, and fight them in court when necessary. We have more to offer your babies, the implication always is, as if a nice home and a middle- or upperclass life was on a comparable scale with growing up with people you look like, whose traits you have inherited, whose predispositions and talents have been passed on to you.
In truth, we are not far from the chilling premise of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where fertile women bear children for infertile upper-class wives. In Gilead, the futuristic society Atwood created, the emphasis is on the difficulty in getting a baby, not on what relinquishing one means to the women who have the babies or to the children themselves.
It is the same in the U.S. today. Scant attention is given to what it means to be uprooted from the long line of a specific heritage that is the birthright of each one of us, and informs us how and where we fit into the cycle of life. Nor to a 20-year movement of adult adoptees and natural mothers that would allow adopted individuals the right to know their true histories, spanning back generations, or who their natural parents are while growing up. The attitude among most adoptive parents seems to be, don't think about that until you have to.
While open adoptions are becoming more common, they are still the exception, not the norm. Instead adoption attorneys press for what they see as their client's best interests: a uniform state law that would permit a woman to sign away her child—irrevocably—only five days after birth, with no recourse or time to see if she could find a way to raise her child.
Five days. Less time than she is allowed by law to be absent from work. Five days. A woman's hormones are still bouncing up and down in that time, and all the time of the pregnancy cannot tell a woman what it means to actually give birth to a living, breathing child who comes out of your body and who will one day look like you and the father. Five days. Hardly enough time to figure out a plan of action for a woman and her baby.
I relinquished my daughter 27 years ago, and for years I believed that it was probably the best for her and me. She had a mother and a father, as well as the kind of middle-class life I would have had a difficult if not impossible time giving her. By breaking laws, we were reunited 12 years ago. True, she has good adoptive parents, but she has seen her share of the awful kinds of problems adoptees are prone to. Low self-esteem is only the beginning. Once, I quietly accepted my conflicted feelings whenever I watched films of animals that showed a mother refusing to leave her dead or wounded offspring. I would tell myself that human life was different, more complicated. But I have come to know that, in some fundamental way, it may always be wrong for a woman to relinquish a child for adoption by strangers. Yes, of course, it is sad to be infertile when it is children you want, but that does not entitle anyone to someone else's
Lorraine Dusky is writing a book on gender bias and the legal system, Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth about Women and Justice in America for Crown Publishing. She is the author of Birthmark, a memoir about surrendering her daughter for adoption.
From On the Issues, The Progressive Women's Magazine, Winter, 1994. I will post the letters that were published in the next issue in a later blog.