September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Cuddling between Dawn and Rodger Schneider, 2-year-old Neena reaches up and presses their faces together. “Mommy and Daddy, kiss!” she demands. The Schneiders happily oblige. After all, the Port St. Lucie, Fla., couple have cared for the toddler since she was a year and three days old—when her biological mother, now 16, gave Neena to them. “I couldn’t have a child, but this girl at the wrong age did,” says Dawn, 38. “She asked us to adopt Neena. It was all so perfect.”

Not quite. Under a new Florida law, the only one of its kind in the U.S., a private adoption in which the biological father is missing can be finalized only after the mother gives him a chance to stop the process. To that end she must publicize her sexual past, running newspaper ads in areas where she lived or visited at the time of conception. Along with a physical description of herself, she must provide the names of all males who may have fathered her child. The law applies equally to minors and (except in Palm Beach County, where a judge ruled otherwise) victims of rape and incest.

Neena’s mother, who had sex with numerous boys during a troubled time in her young life (her name is being withheld at her request), would have to run an ad in her Long Island hometown. “She knows she made a mistake, but she doesn’t want to put that stuff in the paper where her grandmother lives,” says Rodger, 40, a school photographer. “She shouldn’t have to.”

Instead the Schneiders have joined with Neena’s mother and five others—including a 12-year-old rape victim—in a lawsuit demanding the repeal of the statute, claiming it violates their right to privacy. Theirs is one of a dozen challenges to a law that affects 80 percent of all Florida adoptions. Says Robert Tuke, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys: “Everything about this statute is bad.”

The sponsors of the Florida Adoption Law (or the “scarlet letter law,” as critics call it) were aiming to prevent the courtroom battles that occasionally result when absent dads discover that their children are being given away. But since it took effect on Oct. 1, 2001, not one father has stepped forward. On the other hand, attorney Jeanne Tate, executive vice president of the Florida Association of Adoption Professionals, says that several of her clients have opted for abortion rather than risk “the terrible humiliation” of going public.

For Melissa Colleran, who opposes abortion, that wasn’t an option. Colleran, 18, says she got pregnant during a one-night stand with a man she met in a New York City bar. She moved to Tampa and planned to 1 give the baby up for adoption but couldn’t bear (much less afford) to run an ad. “It wasn’t fair to the biological father or to me,” says Colleran, who has chosen to keep her daughter, due in December—and to speak out against the law. “I’ll be able to handle being a parent, but other girls might not. They should be able to put their babies up for adoption without embarrassment or shame.”

State legislators, many of whom admit that they didn’t read the 106-page bill that they overwhelmingly passed, are mortified at its consequences. “No one ever thought about a 12-year-old child getting raped,” says its chief sponsor, Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell. “No one intended to embarrass, hurt or make this difficult for anybody.” He promises to try to have the public-notification portion of the law removed when the legislature meets in March.

The Schneiders aren’t willing to wait—or to trust lawmakers’ pledges. The couple met Neena’s mother through the teenager’s father, Joe, who moved from Long Island to Port St. Lucie in 1998 after divorcing his wife. Before he won custody of their four children in January 2001, he says, “The kids were neglected. Without supervision, my daughter wound up pregnant.”

The families socialized frequently. “She would come in, plop the baby down and go outside and play,” says Rodger of Neena’s mother. “She was 14. She wanted to be with other kids.” When Joe’s ex-wife died last year, he and his daughter left Neena with the Schneiders for a few days while they traveled to New York for the funeral. “We fell in love with her,” says Dawn. Soon after, Neena’s mother asked them to adopt the baby. The papers were signed on Oct. 2, 2001. But, unbeknownst to either family, the law had gone into effect just a day earlier. Neena’s mother—who agreed to forgo contact with her daughter—had come to terms with her decision and was doing well in high school. “Now,” Joe says, “it could all come undone.”

The Schneiders refuse to contemplate a life without Neena. They’ve taken her to Disney World four times, and every night in her toy-filled room they read her a poem for adopted children. “I want her to know she didn’t grow in my belly,” says Dawn, “but in my heart.”

Christina Cheakalos

Lori Rozsa in Port St. Lucie

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