AS BEST SHE CAN, ROBERTA DEBOER, 35, tries to maintain a semblance of normality around her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. Each weekday, after her husband, Jan, 40, sets out for work as a printer, she plays with Jessica, the 28-month-old girl she hopes to adopt. Other times the toddler loves frolicking with the family's golden retriever, Miles. In the afternoons, Robby, as she is known, usually puts Jessica down for a nap. But while the little girl sleeps, it is Robby who tries to ward off a nightmare—poring over legal documents in a desperate attempt to prevent authorities from taking away the baby she calls her own. "She is my child," Robby has said. "I did not birth her, but in every respect she is my child. When she cries, I am there. When she is happy, I'm a part of that happiness."

The way things look now, however, there may be precious little happiness ahead for the DeBoers. After more than two years of legal wrangling, one of the most closely watched—and agonizing—adoption cases ever seems to be moving to a climax. Last March an appeals court in Michigan ruled that the DeBoers must return Jessica, whom they have raised since she was a week old, to the girl's biological mother and lather, Cara Schmidt, 30, and her husband, Dan, 41, of Blairstown, Iowa. The Schmidts have waged a fierce campaign to win back the daughter they call Anna, who they contend was unfairly taken from them. "This is like a death," said Robby at the time of the decision. The Schmidts, who are expecting another child in June, pronounced themselves "overjoyed."

Yet for both sides in this painful dispute, the misery goes back a long way. In January 1991, after years of looking for a baby to adopt because she was unable to have children herself, Robby got a call from a friend who worked as an attorney in Iowa, telling her about a single woman named Cara Clausen, then 28, who lived in the tiny farming community of Blairstown, near Cedar Rapids, and worked at a nearby trucking company. Cara was pregnant and wanted to put her child up for adoption because she didn't feel equipped to care for it on her own. The DeBoers hired a local lawyer, John Monroe, who made contact with Cara and worked out the necessary details to have the baby handed over at birth. Six days after the child was born, on Feb. 14, Robby and her mother drove through a heavy snowstorm to Cedar Rapids to pick up her new daughter.

Holding the little girl—whom she had decided to name Jessica—for the first time, Robby fell blessed. "I just fell made in love with her immediately," she said in an interview. "She was gorgeous." At a court hearing on Feb. 25, attorney Monroe presented a judge with Cara's signed release of custody. Monroe also handed over a signed release from Scott Seefeldt, whom Cara had identified as the baby's father. The judge officially terminated Clausen and Seefeldt's parental rights, and within five days the elated DeBoers had become the legal guardians of Jessica and returned to Ann Arbor.

Their bliss lasted exactly one week. On March 8 a lawyer called to tell them that Cara had changed her mind and wanted her baby back. As Cara later explained, the whole pregnancy had been enormously stressful for her. Fearful that her parents, who also live in Blairstown, would disapprove, she had not even told them she was expecting a child until three days before the birth. "I was in denial," she recently told the Ann Arbor Observer. "I guess I felt ashamed." It turned out that her parents were strongly supportive and wanted her to keep the baby. More to the point, in court papers filed to win back her child, Cara also claimed that she had thought that Monroe had been working for her, not for the DeBoers, and that when he brought her papers to sign hours after the birth she was still in a daze.

But the real bombshell came a few days later when Dan Schmidt, a local truck driver and former boyfriend of Cara's, came forward, declared that he was Jessica's biological father and sued to establish his parental rights. (Tests have confirmed Schmidt's paternity.) Since then Schmidt and Clausen have married. Why Cara had originally named Seefeldt as the father is unclear. Whatever the reason, though, the net effect was plain enough: The paternal rights of the biological father had not been signed away after all. Thus the DeBoers were presented with the terrible dilemma of whether or not to hand back the child they had obtained in good faith.

Quickly they decided to fight. And so began the bitter custody battle that has seesawed back and forth—while Jessica has grown more aware of her world and more vulnerable to the trauma of dislocation. After a raft of appeals and rulings in both Michigan and Iowa, the DeBoers won what appeared to be a crucial victory last February when Michigan Judge William Ager Jr., stressing the best interests of the child over the traditional rights of biological parents, decreed that they should get custody of Jessica. Handing down his decision, he implored the Schmidts to abandon any further appeals, in order to spare Jessica. "Think of the possibility of saying, 'Enough!' " he urged.

Certainly both couples have taken their share of emotional hits as embarrassing and occasionally troubling details surfaced about them. It emerged, for instance, that in his youth, Jan, who was born in the Netherlands, had been in several scrapes with the law, including a conviction for illegal entry. Meanwhile some people in Blairstown looked askance at Cara and Dan's newly minted family values. "[She was] a woman who did her own thing, who lived her whole life just like she wanted," local resident Nancy Stults told a reporter from Ann Arbor. As for Dan, a former girlfriend, Barbara Schlicht, finds it strange that he should suddenly express such paternal concern for Jessica when he has all but ignored Amanda, the 13-year-old daughter they had together out of wedlock. "He says he wanted visitation with Jessica, when Mandy was only 25 miles from him her whole life," says Schlicht. As a measure of opinion in Iowa, a recent poll by a Cedar Rapids television station showed those surveyed favoring the DeBoers by a 2-to-1 margin over the Schmidts.

Supporters of the DeBoers believe that Cara and Dan arc being manipulated in their quest to get Jessica back. Some believe the Schmidts have fallen under the spell of a group called Concerned United Birthparents, which crusades for the rights of biological parents. Although several CUB members have befriended the couple, Cara and Dan staunchly deny that they are puppets of the organization And in am case, in late March the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned Judge Ager's ruling and ordered the DeBoers to return Jessica to the Schmidts on the grounds that Iowa courts which have generally supported the Schmidts had jurisdiction in the case.

Although the DeBoers will have a chance to argue their case before the Michigan Supreme court on June 3, even their lawyer acknowledges that their prospects for victory appear rather dim. Though the DeBoers indicated that they would return Jessica to the Schmidts if they lose, they now seem determined to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. In addition to the emotional toll, each of the couples has run up legal hills approaching $100,000. And as always, the real victim in the case is the child. "We've got to bury the hatchet," said Jan recently. "We've got to bury the animosity between the two parties. Because in Jessi's eyes, she's got to see us as friendly couples."

BILL HEWTTT
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Ann Arbor and BONNIE BELL in Blairstown

  • Contributors:
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Bonnie Bell.