The Homecoming

UPDATED 05/29/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/29/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

DADDY, CAN YOU COOK THIS?" asks 4-year-old Danny, bursting into the dining room of his parents' Mokena, Ill., apartment. A crew-cut blond dressed in a black Chicago White Sox shirt, red sweatpants and Velcro-strapped Lion King sneakers, he is wielding a blueberry-flavored drink mix called Lick Sticks.

"What's this?" asks his father, Otakar Kirchner. "I can't cook this—it's candy."

"No, it's for drinking," Danny says, laughing. "Can you cook it for me?"

Setting aside semantic fine points, Kirchner finds a Power Ranger cup and adds water to the mix with the mock gravity of a chemist. Lick Stick in hand, Danny grabs a ham sandwich from the table and parks himself on the carpet. Several huge bites and a few gulps later, he bellows, "Yum, Yum, Yum!"

The cozy filial scene contrasts starkly with the drama played out before a national TV audience just two weeks earlier, on April 30, in the town of Schaumburg, 40 miles to the north. There, on a tidy suburban lawn, in front of weeping neighbors and an army of reporters, Danny—then known to the world as Baby Richard, a pseudonym given him by the courts—was taken from Kim and Robert Warburton, his adoptive parents, and placed in the custody of Czech immigrants Daniela and Otakar Kirchner, his biological mother and father. "I don't want to! I don't want to!" cried the child, clawing at Kim Warburton as she carried him from the house.

"I will never forget his screams—they will echo in my ears forever," recalls Theresa Bernal, Kim Warburton's childhood friend, who pried the boy's hands away from the only mother he had ever known. "I hope he knows I didn't want to do it. I hope I did the right thing."

As soon as Danny was in the car, the Kirchners and their son drove away from the shady cul-de-sac where the boy had lived since his fourth day of life. The event, made possible by January's custody ruling by the Illinois supreme court, is referred to by all concerned as "the transfer"—much as one might speak of funds being shifted from a savings account to an IRA. It was, in fact, the climax to an acrimonious four-year legal tug-of-war reminiscent of the recent sensational fight over "Baby Jessica" DeBoer. Like that battle, the struggle drained both families' coffers and raised poignant questions about adoption and the American family.

Throughout the dispute, national sentiment has been overwhelmingly on the side of the Warburtons—who are making one more attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case. Known until recently as the Doe family to preserve Danny's anonymity, the Warburtons—who have a biological son, John, now 7—have maintained a virtual public silence. But they have some powerful allies speaking up for them, including Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and Senators Paul Simon and Carol Moseley-Braun. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in during an appearance on Oprah. "It's an outrage," she said. "That child had bonded. That child was not just the child of the adoptive parents. That child was the child of an entire extended family and neighborhood."

Adoption experts have generally attacked the court decision. "In the short term the case will have a frightening impact—people will turn to infertility treatment or rush abroad to adopt," says Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor and author of the 1993 book Family Bonds: Adoption and the Politics of Parenting. "But in the long term, there's some hope that the Baby Richard case will lead to good legal reform."

Daniela Kirchner is unmoved by the criticism. "I don't care what anyone says," she declares. "They can come and see. He is happy here. He probably was not happy like that in his four years."

Once a concert violinist, Otakar, now 38, met Daniela, 28, in a Chicago bar in 1989, a few years after Otakar had emigrated from Czechoslovakia. He soon secured her a waitressing job at the restaurant where he worked as a manager. Before long they were engaged and living together. Then, on the verge of marriage, Otakar unexpectedly returned to Czechoslovakia, he says to care for the grandmother who had raised him and who was dying of Alzheimer's disease. Daniela—by now studying cosmetology and pregnant with Danny—says she believed that Otakar had jilted her for an old girlfriend. She gave Danny up for adoption, and Otakar—now back in the U.S. but estranged from her—was told the boy had died.

The real problem began when the couple reconciled and Daniela confessed—on Mother's Day 1991—that she had given her son up for adoption: Danny was alive and well and living with Bob Warburton, now 38, a firefighter, and his wife, Kim, 38, a paralegal. Almost immediately, Otakar (whom Daniela finally married in September 1992) embarked on a tortuous legal journey to regain Danny, then only a few months old. Two lower courts rejected their claim because Otakar had not shown a "reasonable interest" in the child within the requisite 30 days of the boy's birth. Last June, the Illinois supreme court accepted Kirchner's argument that he hadn't known at the time that he had a child.

Originally the two families agreed to work out a gradual transition for Danny—with the help of a team of mental health experts—through which he would get to know his "new" parents. But months of delicate negotiations collapsed in bitterness. "They just didn't want to give up, ever," Daniela says of the Warburtons, who have contested the state court decision from the beginning. Adds Otakar: "If I realize I am beaten, I say I am beaten. Instead, they petition the Supreme Court."

Finally, the Kirchners decided simply to stop talking and retrieve Danny without further delay. But the Warburtons weren't finished fighting. To dramatize their cause, they alerted the media, setting the stage for the achingly lurid scene on April 30. Kirchner recalls vividly his first-ever glimpse of his son, who at the time was clinging, terrified, to Kim Warburton. He is distinctly ambivalent about Danny's apparent hysteria en route to the waiting van. "It was not like real crying with tears falling down," he says. "It was like cats meowing." But in the next breath, Kirchner, more pensive, makes an astonishing claim: "If I had known that after four years I would have to see my son cry, I would have never started this case."

In any event, he says Danny calmed down immediately while sitting on his mother's lap in the van. "I told him, I want to live with you, play with you, love you," recalls Kirchner. And when Kirchner made a hand puppet out of a plastic bag, he says he drew laughs from his son. As the van neared a McDonald's restaurant, Danny called out for Chicken McNuggets, and the three Kirchners passed through the golden arches like millions of other families.

That kind of mundane normality, of course, is their ultimate goal. Danny's bedroom is decorated with pictures of dalmatians and myriad images from The Lion King and Power Ranger lore. He plays with the neighborhood kids, rides his training bike around the pond behind the apartment building, and within a week of the transfer he was calling the Kirchners Mom and Dad.

Kirchner has plenty of time to spend with his son: he has been unemployed since the restaurant he was managing closed last summer. The family is supported by Daniela, a beautician, while Otakar hopes for movie offers to defray his $400,000 in legal bills. He and Danny-continue to bond over Nerf ball, Super Nintendo and other pursuits—such as the toy race track now set up on the floor in front of the TV Sometimes their recreations take a darker turn: "He is always shooting me with something, and I have to die," Kirchner says with a smile.

Still bitter, he and his wife are not likely to grant visitation rights to Robert and Kim Warburton. Daniela, however, says she would welcome their son John: "He can come here and play—that's fine. But not the parents."

According to Karen Moriarty, a psychologist who makes daily visits to observe the Kirchners, the boy is adapting well to his new environs. Remarkably, Moriarty insists, Danny has never mentioned the Warburtons. "Can I lie to you and say it isn't so?" asks the psychologist. "Every day I'm keeping notes."

But Bennett Leventhal, an expert on childhood trauma who chairs the University of Chicago's child and adolescent psychiatry department, doubts that Danny is emotionally unscathed by his experience. "The kid is going to be scarred for life," he says bluntly. "Anybody who pretends this will all go away and he'll live happily ever after is wrong."

Perhaps. But on this May afternoon, Danny and Kirchner are engaged in the ultimate American father-son rite. The boy is on an imaginary pitcher's mound in the yard, rubber ball in hand, screwing up his face like a scowling big-leaguer, a Cubs hat turned backward on his head. Taking a sign from an invisible catcher, he fires an impressive heater at Kirchner that whizzes off course into the pond nearby. "Oh, no!" the boy moans.

"Don't worry," says his father, his 280-pound bulk hurtling toward the water's edge. "Daddy will get it. Daddy will get it."

RICHARD JEROME
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Chicago, and bureau reports

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