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How bad is it for Robby Deboer? Groping for the right analogy, Robby—no one has called her Roberta for years—seizes on the other terrible moment in her life: the lingering death of her father, to whom she was close. "I tried to grasp every moment and just enjoy every bit of time because we never never when he would die," recalls Robby, sitting in her living room in Ann Arbor, Mich. "We just knew it would be relatively soon."

But what is happening to her now, she says, is much worse.

On July 2 the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Robby, 35, and her husband, Jan, 40, to give up their only child. Specifically, the DeBoers were ordered to return their 2½-year-old daughter, Jessica, whom they have raised since birth, to the girl's biological parents, Dan and Cara Schmidt of Blairstowrn, Iowa. The court said that the child must be returned by Aug. 2. "Each day you just sit and count off the hours and mark a day off on the calendar," says Robby. Then she breaks down sobbing: "It's like asking somebody to go with a little child into the Black Forest and walk away."

For the Schmidts, of course, the decision was more like a Grimm's fairy tale with a happy ending, in which the justice system had at last righted a wrong. After more than two years of bitter wrangling, they were finally going to be reunited with their natural daughter, whom they call Anna. When the 6 to 1 decision came down, Dan, 41, a truck driver, was making a delivery at a store. A stranger came up and offered congratulations. Dan at first thought the woman was referring to the fact that Cara, 30, had recently given birth to a baby girl, Chloe. Learning what had happened, he raced home, crying all the way. "Cara met me at the door," he later told reporters, "and we hugged and cried together, and we were both at a loss for words, we were both so overwhelmed."

For all the emotion that it unleashed, the ruling didn't come as a great surprise. In its essence, the case provided a distinctly modern twist on the old debate over which influence should be taken more seriously in life, nature or nurture. Which parents were entitled to this little girl: those whose blood flowed in her veins or those who had nursed her through the darkest nights of early childhood? As it turns out, legal precedents in most states put the rights of biological parents before those of the child or other caretakers. The judges were not obliged to consider the "best interest of the child"—which did not, however, prevent the majority from demanding that the embattled couples do so. "It is now time for the adults to move beyond saying that their only concern is the welfare of the child," wrote the court, "and to put those words into action."

The DeBoers have vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, bolstered by scores of supporters in Michigan and Iowa who were appalled by the decision. Almost immediately the ad hoc JUSTICE FOR JESSI groups began organizing a July 10 bus trip to Washington, where they plan to demonstrate on the steps of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the victory for the Schmidts was hailed with delight by groups supporting the rights of biological parents.

The DeBoers understand that their chance of getting the court to reconsider the case in light of Jessi's welfare is small, so they have begun preparing for the worst. As much as they can Robby and Jan try to conceal their mounting anguish from Jessi and to keep their lives as normal as possible. "You can't do anything but go out and play on the swing when she says, 'I gotta go play'," says Robby. "You can't say, 'No, I'm having a mental breakdown here.' " Nor have they attempted to explain the situation to her. "Children cannot understand or get the notion of something unknown," says Robby. Soon, however, they must begin to gently break the news. "We're definitely going to explain everything to her," Jan recently told reporters. "But we want to be very careful about how this is introduced. It's a very big parcel, and it must be delivered carefully."

That won't be easy, especially since both sides can make passionate and persuasive arguments to support their cases. It all started simply enough. On Feb. 8, 1991, Cara Clausen, who was then single, gave birth to a baby girl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Having decided that she could not raise a child on her own, she had arranged, through a lawyer, for the baby's adoption by the DeBoers, who had been desperately trying to adopt for several years. At a routine court hearing on Feb. 25, a judge was given Cara's signed release of parental rights. He also received a similar document from Scott Seefeldt, whom Cara had named as the baby's father. Since everything seemed in order, the judge summarily severed their parental rights. The elated DeBoers returned to Ann Arbor and began settling into what looked to be a happy domestic life, Jan working as a printer and Robby caring for little Jessi.

But within days, everything started to come undone. In a sudden change of heart, Cara announced that she now wanted the baby after all. More important, it also turned out that she had lied about the child's paternity. The real father was Dan Schmidt, with whom she had broken up months before. Cara's parental rights had been severed, but Dan's had not—and he now wanted custody of the little girl. Dan and Cara were also talking reconciliation. The DeBoers, who because of the dispute were never able to finalize the adoption, fought back in the courts, arguing that they should not be penalized for Cara's erratic actions. And thus began the tortuous path through the legal system.

But if both sides could muster convincing arguments in their favor, both faced some unsettling questions. Critics of the DeBoers asked why, once they knew that the biological mother and father wanted their child back, they hadn't spared everyone such anguish by returning her promptly. Robby maintains that when she and Jan checked with child welfare officials, they were told that because Cara's parental rights had been lawfully severed, Jessica would have at least temporarily been placed in foster care. "I don't believe in foster care," Robby says. "I think it's a lousy excuse in our system for taking care of children." And, says Robby, by the time the Iowa courts had reinstated Cara's rights, which took place earlier this year, any transfer of Jessica would have been too disruptive. As for Dan's parental rights, the DeBoers insist that they were genuinely dubious about his commitment to either Cara or the baby. He had already neglected a daughter, Amanda, 13, whom he had also fathered out of wedlock. As for Cara, "I did not believe there was a relationship there," says Robby.

Ultimately, though, Dan and Cara did get married, in April 1992, and they did have Chloe in June. And to outward appearances at any rate, they live a modest and ordinary life in Blairstown. As Dan told reporters, "I'm glad my family's going to be united. We can go on like a normal family, do our daily thing and be happy."

Yet neighbors in and around tiny Blairstown, located 30 miles from Cedar Rapids, did not universally share that joy. Many grumbled, if only privately, that the Schmidts were not necessarily the best candidates for parenthood. One of the harshest critics was Barbara Schlicht, a former girlfriend of Dan's, who is also the mother of Amanda. Since her birth, Dan has had virtually no contact with Amanda, despite the fact that she and her mother live in Cedar Rapids. In Barbara's view, the Michigan decision amounted to "court-sanctioned child abuse." "He wants that child back and wants to make a family," says Schlicht, "but he doesn't care a rat's butt about Amanda."

Just how much trauma Jessi will experience is open to debate. No one doubts that she will suffer some immediate disruption. The DeBoers and their supporters contend that the possible effects of being taken from the only parents she has ever known could range from short-term problems like nightmares to more profound complications such as a deep-seated insecurity. "This little girl is losing everything she is familiar with," says Dr. Elissa Benedek, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Michigan. "Her parents, her room, many of her favorite toys and even her name. It is an absolute tragedy for Jessica."

Yet Joe Soil, a psychotherapist and director of the Council for Equal Rights in Adoption, which supports the rights of biological parents, insists that if you want to talk long-term problems, nothing can match the lifelong pain that adopted children often feel. "The impact of the separation of mother and child is tremendous and severe," says Soil, who was himself adopted. "I have had this problem since I was born. I had a good home, but the separation leaves a mark down to one's toes—one's self-esteem is damaged, one's ability to function in the world."

To help ease what seems to be the inevitable transfer of their little girl, the DeBoers have agreed to allow the Schmidts some visitation privileges with Jessi before the deadline. At first they were reluctant to do so. "If we give visitations," says Robby, "it only helps Jessi to feel more deceived by us when we finally walk away." Their wariness increased after a tense encounter with Jessi's biological grandmothers, Earlene Clausen and Mary Dickinson, who had shown up unannounced in Ann Arbor last month. "They came to our house and demanded to see Jessi," says Robby, who initially refused.

A day and half later, though, she called them and invited them over to get acquainted. The six-hour meeting, during which the DeBoers allowed Clausen and Schmidt to hold the youngster, was at best awkward. "We just showed pictures," says Robby. The session ended on an especially sour note. As the two grandmothers were preparing to leave, recalls Robby, "Earlene said, 'Take good care of our little baby.' " Furious, Robby recalls that she shot back, "Don't you think we've done a good job for the past 2½ years?"

Despite the rancor, the two sides were moving last week toward an agreement on visitation for the Schmidts. Robby says that, starling on the weekend of July 17, Dan and Cara may be allowed to see Jessica for one-hour periods, "depending on how Jan and I are coping." If successful, more meetings would be scheduled for the following weekend. Cara was planning to arrive in Ann Arbor last week and stay through the actual transfer, with Dan commuting in when possible. How exactly the transfer will take place is still a touchy issue. The DeBoers insist they be allowed to bring Jessica to Blairstown, to spare her the long journey with people who are strangers to her. The Schmidts, meanwhile, want to be allowed to pick up their daughter in Ann Arbor.

Perhaps the most ticklish remaining issue is whether the DeBoers will be permitted any contact with Jessica in the months or years to come. Some experts suggest that such contact might be useful. "The more often Jessica is able to see the DeBoers, the better off she is likely to be," says psychiatrist Benedek. "Hopefully something can be worked out through counseling and mediation between both sets of parents." But Robby, for one, is not convinced visitation will be best for either Jessica or the DeBoers. "In reality, what Jessi needs is to be monitored through life," she says, "so that she understands that a hole exists and that people can help her carry that burden." It is a burden the DeBoers will also carry. Standing in their living room last week, their last moments with Jessica slipping away, Robby and Jan acknowledge that perhaps the best thing under the circumstances is to let go. "The pain just pierces," says Robby, choking back the tears. "But I'd do anything for Jessica."

BILL HEWITT
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Ann Arbor, BONNIE BELL in Blairstown and JANE SUGDEN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Bonnie Bell,
  • Jane Sugdex.