Ruffled little girls in gingham and bows are designed to be heartbreakers; they are in symbol the most powerfully helpless of creatures. But few have ever seemed quite so helpless—or so heartbreaking—as Jessica DeBoer, the little girl with too many parents. The custody fight between her would-be adoptive parents and her biological parents proved so long and so gruesome that it left families everywhere feeling a little less comfortable about how they would fare if they ever became entangled in America’s courts.
Jan and Roberta DeBoer thought they had played by the rules, suffered the wait, signed all the forms, when they brought the newborn home to Michigan from Iowa in February 1991. What they had not counted on was a grieving birth mother’s change of heart. That March, after Cara Clausen revealed that the man who had signed the adoption consent was not the real father after all, the legal jousting began. Cara eventually married Jessica’s biological father, Dan Schmidt, and together they fought for custody. Legally, Dan had never relinquished his claim to his daughter; and after a grueling round of rulings and appeals that traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, the law came down on their side.
But all the while, 2-year-old Jessica was living happily in Ann Arbor, too young to read the headlines about the fight over her fate. By the time the day came last August for her to leave her home, her dog Miles and the only parents she had ever known, Jessica was carried sobbing to the car and driven away from the inconsolable DeBoers. Dan said later that Jessica cried herself to sleep that first night.
Jessica’s story wreaked havoc on the peace of mind of adoptive parents everywhere. Why did the courts seem to care so much more about parents’ biological rights than about a child’s welfare? Advocates for adoptive families shared stories of children returned to unfit parents, only to be beaten and abused and abandoned by the system that was supposed to protect them.
The Schmidts’ supporters retorted that they had never been found unfit; that courts should favor the biological family unless it posed a danger to the child. How would Jessica feel, they wondered, if she grew up knowing that her biological parents had desperately wanted to raise her but had been foiled by her adoptive parents?
This year, courts didn’t seem to know quite what to do in children’s cases. Tyler Doustou was handed over to his grandmother because a Virginia judge ruled that his mother’s lesbian lifestyle would cause him harm. Kimberly Mays, who was switched at birth in a Florida hospital, lived with her “family” for nine years before the mistake was discovered. A judge recently ruled that she didn’t have to see her birth parents if she didn’t want to.
It will be years before anyone knows the toll that such battles take on parents and children. For now, it may come as some solace to the millions who came to care so much about her that Jessica, now called Anna Lee Schmidt, seems to be doing fine. Says Lucy Biven, a child psychoanalyst who supervised the transition: “Her adjustment has been so unexpectedly good that I give the Schmidts and the DeBoers a lot of credit.” And she has started to call Dan Daddy.