Little Girl, Big Trouble

Tessa looks just like any other pixieish blond 4-year-old. Her dimpled grin is disarming, and the twinkle in her deep brown eyes hints at a mischievous spirit. She prances as she walks, constantly attended by her trusted teddy bear and stuffed dinosaur. In the presence of strangers she is friendly, if not entirely sure of herself. That insecurity disappears, though, when Tessa speaks of her future. “I don’t want to grow up,” she says. “I want to stay little.”

Small wonder. At her tender age, Tessa has already sampled the complexities of the adult world, and she evidently finds them exceedingly strange. The child of a surrogate-parenting arrangement gone tragically awry, Tessa is trapped in a legal labyrinth from which there is no easy exit. Her life is circumscribed by court rulings and crowded with lawyers and angry adults. Even the simple joy of learning to write her own name has been compromised, largely because the grown-ups on whom she relies cannot agree on what her surname should be.

Biologically, Tessa is the child of Lee Stotski, a Columbus, Ohio, social worker who gave birth to her on Jan. 21, 1985. The baby was given to Beverly Seymour and Richard Reams, the married couple who had hired Stotski as a surrogate mother. But when their marriage foundered a year later, Seymour and Reams both wanted custody of Tessa. That might have seemed like trouble enough for one baby, but things only got worse. For reasons neither can now adequately explain, Reams and Seymour had failed to file adoption papers. By doing so, they left Tessa in legal limbo.

As the months dragged on, other complications arose. Court-ordered blood tests disclosed that Reams could not have fathered Tessa. Her biological father turned out to be Leslie Miner, a friend of Stotski’s who agreed to be a sperm donor after repeated attempts at artificial insemination using Reams’s sperm had failed. Miner has since signed away any paternal rights.

For now, Tessa divides her time between Reams’s home in Sunbury, Ohio, and Seymour’s in Ashville, Ohio, traveling 50 miles twice a week. Stotski, who is also seeking custody of Tessa, sees the child only occasionally. The battle over permanent custody has dragged on for more than two years and required the ministrations of more than a dozen lawyers. Last month the case reached a temporary stalemate in Franklin County Probate Court in Columbus when Judge Richard Metcalf dismissed separate petitions for adoption by Reams and Seymour after they failed to post bonds of $3,000 each to cover the cost of legal representation for Tessa. Metcalf rejected pleas of financial hardship by Reams, whose business failed, and Seymour, who owns a small quilt-and-craft shop. Instead he suggested that Reams and Seymour give up their claims to Tessa and allow her to be adopted by an unidentified East Coast couple reported to have a six-figure annual income. “I started to cry,” says Kim Halliburton, the former lawyer for Reams. (Reams has declined to speak to the press.) “I said, ‘No, I can’t make my client accept that.’ ” Seymour was equally outraged. “The judge concentrated on how much these people could give Tessa,” she says. “I feel like I’m in a bidding war over this kid, and I am the low bidder.”

Judge Metcalf doesn’t see it that way. “It’s our position that we have to seek out the best possible adoption for the child,” he says. “In this case we have two people petitioning for adoption who are unrelated to the child and who have divorced. That never makes a happy group. Whereas we could put the child with people who have nothing but pluses.” For Metcalf the overriding issue in the case seems to be the continued acrimony between Reams and Seymour. “At some point [Tessa] has to be affected by all the emotional strain,” he says. “Those little minds do a lot of thinking. It’s too bad adults tear kids up this way.”

In the absence of a clear-cut statute concerning surrogate motherhood in Ohio, the legal wrangling over Tessa’s future was recently transferred to another venue, juvenile court. There, Reams and Seymour will have to contend with each other and also with Stotski, the birth mother, who has concluded that Tessa would be better off living permanently with her. “I had talked myself into thinking, ‘This is not your child. You have no right to tell them what to do,’ ” says Stotski. “But then I felt guilty about having brought a child into the world and put her into this situation.”

Confronted with the array of petitioners all seeking custody of one little girl—Reams, Seymour, Stotski and the unnamed couple back East—some of the lawyers involved are nonplussed. “We find ourselves tongue-tied just trying to decide the players,” says Charles Milless, an attorney appointed by the courts to represent Tessa. “And every time somebody turns around, one of the parties files in a new court or changes attorneys.” King Solomon would have wept.

When Beverly Seymour and Richard Reams married in December 1979, raising a family was uppermost in their minds. “I tried every means to get pregnant,” says Seymour. “I went to several fertility specialists, and everything looked okay.” Reams, who sold furnaces and portable kerosene heaters for a living, had a checkup that showed a normal sperm count. Finally, after three years of frustration, Seymour underwent exploratory surgery and discovered that one of her fallopian tubes was blocked, and that it was unlikely she would be able to conceive a child.

In vain Seymour and Reams investigated the possibility of adoption. Then, in 1982, they saw a news story about Kathryn Wyckoff, a Columbus woman who was launching a surrogate-motherhood service. Neither a doctor nor a lawyer, Wyckoff’s primary qualification was that she had once been a surrogate mother herself. Seymour and Reams became her first customers.

Wyckoff, who charged $3,000 for her services, put the couple in touch with Stotski, who agreed to bear Reams’s child for $10,000 plus medical expenses. Married and the mother of three teenage children, Stotski imagined herself sharing the joy of parenting with a childless couple. “Everything about the Reamses’ marital situation was presented to me as very, very perfect,” Stoski says. “The message I got was, ‘We want a child. We want to have a family.’ ”

Three times a month, for six months, Stotski unsuccessfully underwent artificial insemination with Reams’s sperm at the office of a Columbus physician. There is disagreement about what happened next. Stotski and Seymour say that Wyckoff suggested using another sperm donor; Wyckoff denies this. Seymour insists her husband agreed. “Nothing was pulled over his eyes,” she says. Yet Reams continued to give his own sperm samples to Stotski, and Halliburton, one of his attorneys, says he knew nothing of another donor. The eventual disclosure that he could not be Tessa’s biological father “was big news to Dick,” Halliburton says.

In the middle of all this, Wyckoff moved to California to start another surrogate service. At that point, Stotski asked Leslie Miner, a 62-year-old coworker, to be an artificial insemination donor. “He did it as a favor,” Stotski says. “He was somebody I trusted and somebody who had dark hair and eyes like Reams.”

Finally, after 18 months of trying, Stotski became pregnant. By then Stotski and Seymour had become close friends. “I was there when the amniocentesis was done,” says Seymour. “I bought her maternity clothes.” Throughout the pregnancy, Stotski kept reminding herself that she could not keep the child. But when she handed the newborn Tessa over to Reams and Seymour, she felt the pull of powerful feelings. “It was much harder than I thought it would be, and I cried for days,” Stotski recalls.

When Tessa was born, Stotski had been paid just $1,000 of her $10,000 fee. At the time, she was content with the knowledge that she would be able to see the little girl occasionally and that she had brought immense happiness to Tessa’s new family. “We would meet for lunch. We would go to the park,” Stotski says. “We all got along fine. They accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to take Tessa away. And I accepted the fact that she was well taken care of.” Meanwhile, Reams’s business was failing, and strains were beginning to appear in their marriage. “Every once in a while Beverly would say she was concerned about money,” Stotski recalls.

By March 1985 Reams and Seymour were in deep financial trouble. Seymour says that Reams and his mother, Anna-belle, who were in business together, both lost their homes following bankruptcy proceedings. That forced his mother to move into the two-bedroom home that Reams and Seymour shared. According to Seymour, Annabelle soon insisted that the three find something larger. Her presence did nothing to ease the couple’s marital problems. “Richard wanted me to work full-time,” complains Seymour, “while his mother took care of my child.”

Reams and his mother moved out in March 1986, leaving Tessa with Seymour. Four months later, says Seymour, Reams scraped together enough money to pay off the remainder of Stotski’s $10,000 fee. Unaware that Reams and Seymour were having troubles, Stotski signed paternity papers identifying Reams as Tessa’s natural father. Seymour claims that Reams “used that legal advantage to come to my home anytime he wanted” and once used violence to get his way. “He physically tried to take the child,” she says. “He beat up on me pretty bad.” Reams vehemently denies that he ever hit his wife.

In June 1986 Reams was able to obtain a court order giving him custody of Tessa, and sheriff’s deputies arrived on Seymour’s doorstep to take the child from her. “When they came and took her, I just about died,” says Seymour. “I didn’t see her again for 57 days. I called and begged, but [Reams] would not let me lay eyes on her.” In desperation Seymour begged Stotski to intercede. “She said, ‘Please, please help me. He won’t let me see Tessa,’ ” Stotski recalls. Sympathetic, she agreed to petition the courts to void Reams’s paternity. “That was my mistake,” says Stotski. “I should not have gotten involved.” It was then that Seymour announced that Reams was not the baby’s biological father. “I said, ‘This is a fraud,’ ” she recalls.

In May 1987 Seymour filed for divorce and vowed to fight for custody of Tessa. Once in the case, Stotski found it impossible to extract herself. When blood tests showed that Miner was probably Tessa’s natural father, Stotski began to reconsider her own responsibility to the child. She decided that Tessa’s life with Reams and Seymour was too chaotic and soon afterward filed for custody herself. “It just didn’t seem like Tessa was leading a very good life,” she says.

On a wall in Stotski’s two-story home hangs a plaque showing a baby’s tiny fist grasping an adult’s finger. Dressed in a white blouse trimmed with lace, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Lee Stotski calmly insists she will continue to press for custody of Tessa, with her husband, Joseph, an electrician. “I’ve always tried to put God’s will first,” she says. “But I wish I knew what His will is. I just can’t figure it out.” She and Seymour are no longer in contact, but Reams did invite Stotski to spend some time with Tessa last Christmas. “I gave her this crazy stuffed brown horse with white stockings and the strangest eyes I’ve ever seen,” says Stotski. “I’ve always loved stuffed animals, and I guess she does too. She doesn’t like dolls, and I never did either.”

Some 30 miles away, late on a Sunday afternoon, Beverly Seymour is at home with Tessa. Showing a visitor around her modest apartment, Seymour complains that she has had to sell off pieces of furniture to pay her legal expenses. “What I was able to keep after the divorce, I’ve hocked,” she says. But despite the hardship, she maintains, Tessa has been nourished with motherly love. “She has known nothing but lullabies and organic food and homemade dresses,” Seymour says, watching Tessa make bright crayon drawings of monsters. “This child was originally conceived for me. From the time Mrs. Stotski got pregnant, I’ve felt this is my baby. I’m Mommy here.” Reciting the litany of her maternal travails, Seymour suddenly breaks down in tears and Tessa races to her side, crying in sympathy. “I’m fine, honey, I’m fine,” says Seymour. As Tessa returns to her drawing, Seymour whispers, “She feels what I’m feeling, so I try to be cheerful.”

Aware that she is due to spend the evening with the Reamses, an hour away, Tessa repeatedly reminds Seymour, “It’s time to go up north, Mommy. It’s time to go up north.” She seems to find nothing unusual about traveling from one parent to another every few days, and she apparently finds equal pleasure in being with both of them. They, in turn, clearly adore her. “I’ve seen how Tessa looks at Dick,” says Kim Halliburton. “The sun rises and sets in that little girl for him.”

If Seymour, Reams and Stotski were willing to set aside their differences for Tessa’s sake, they might work out a custody agreement. “If the court felt [a settlement] served the child’s best interest, that exists as a legal possibility,” says attorney Milless. “As a practical matter, no such agreement seems forthcoming.” As biological mother, Stotski would normally have the strongest legal case for custody. But her original decision to allow Reams and Seymour to raise Tessa may be considered child abandonment, cause to deny her any parental rights. All parties consider joint custody between Reams and Seymour unlikely because of the animosity between the two. Whatever their faults, however, Reams and Seymour are the only parents Tessa has ever known. “She’s not an infant. She’s not oblivious to what goes on,” says Halliburton. “These are Mommy and Daddy. And for a small child, that’s all the world she’s got.”

—David Grogan, and Beth Austin in Columbus

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