JODIE PAUL BELIEVES THE BOND BETWEEN mother and child can never be severed—not by lime, not by heartbreakingly bad luck, not even by the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. But her faith is being put to the test. Earlier this month the high court declined to hear the Griffin, Ga., mother’s appeal for custody of her 9-year-old son, Melvin, who as a newborn had been switched at the hospital with another infant she has raised as her own.
Despite the Supreme Court setback, which left Melvin legally in the custody of the Radeliff, Ky., couple who adopted him when he was 6 months old, the boy celebrated Thanksgiving in the same place this year as last year—in Griffin with Paul, her new husband and the two boys he now calls “my brothers.” (They are Paul’s 12-year-old stepson, Robert, and Cameron—the 9-year-old she was mistakenly given at the hospital and has since adopted.) “Melvin says that he is old enough to know what he wants,” says Paul, 28. “He’s happy with us, and he doesn’t want to go back with them…. I didn’t want to disrupt Melvin’s life. But something just told me that something ain’t right. I knew I was his mother, and I never gave him up.”
The reason Paul says Melvin doesn’t want to return to Kentucky—and that she has kept him since November 1991, despite a Georgia court ruling—is because, she alleges, he was being emotionally and physically abused in his adoptive home. Citing affidavits from 10 neighbors of the Kentucky couple. Paul charges Melvin’s adoptive mother, Edith Moore, with severely mistreating the boy. Through their attorney, Moore and her husband. Eugene, deny the allegations.
Paul says she knew something was wrong last year when Melvin came for his first visit, at Thanksgiving. “Melvin would drop something, and he would flinch,” Paul says. “He looked at me real scared, like I was fixing to do something.” During the past year, she says, the once fearful boy has blossomed into a feisty third grader who enjoys playing baseball, football and Nintendo with his “brothers.”
Paul vows to keep her son as long as she legally can. But his adoptive parents, the Moores, want him back. When Paul refused to turn over Melvin last year, the couple filed motions in Georgia courts for his return. But those courts would not act while Paul’s appeal of the custody order was pending, explains the Moores’ lawyer, David Gray, and so there was no way the Monies could get Melvin back. (The couple declined to be interviewed for this story.) Now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case, he says, “We don’t know exactly when we re going to do the next step.” But, he adds, “[the Moores] miss him.”
About the only sure thing is that, at least for a while, there will be no comfortable resolution to this tangled tale that has ensnarled two families, unraveled a marriage and disrupted the lives of two boys.
In the beginning it seemed so simple. Back in the fall of 1983, Jodie Pope, a 19-year-old housewife, and her then husband, Walter, 20, an auto mechanic, were looking forward to the birth of their first child. Meanwhile the Moores, a mixed-race couple living in Fort Stewart, Ca., were looking for a biracial child to adopt. (Edith, a 43-year-old housekeeper born in Germany, is white. Eugene, 37, an Army staff sergeant, is black.) On Oct. 7 at Griffin-Spalding County Hospital, Jodie gave birth to a boy the couple called Cameron. That same day Jodie remembers just one other baby being born there, to single mother Tina Williams. 20. She named the mixed-race boy whom she planned to put up for adoption Melvin, after his father, a black construction worker.
But due to an error at the hospital, the Popes took home Williams’s biracial infant. Williams left with their while child, who was later placed with the Moores. Even at the time, Edith Moore had doubts about the fair-skinned baby. “You sure that’s a mixed child?” she recalled asking the adoption agency. “That looks like a little white boy.”
Walter Pope, too, was troubled, wondering whether the olive-skinned baby with dark hair was really his. But Jodie, whose father was mostly Cherokee, insisted the boy favored that side of her family.
The truth didn’t begin to emerge until five years later. Partly due to Waller’s suspicions of infidelity, the Popes split up. Waller didn’t want to support a child that wasn’t his and demanded blood tests. That’s when he learned the youngster wasn’t related to him—or to Jodie either.
After her divorce, Jodie kept Cameron, without child support (since the boy wasn’t his, Walter was not legally obligated to pay). She began waitressing and moved in with her mother and stepfather until her marriage in November 1991 to auto parts dealer Billy Paul, 36. In 1988 she started what turned mil to be a three-year quest to find her natural son. Jodie also says she explained to Cameron that although she was not his biological mother, “I was not sorry I had him as my son, and I loved him.” (After the acrimonious divorce, Walter, who remarried and has a 3-year-old son, had no contact with Cameron and so far has not seen his biological son, Melvin Moore.)
Finally, Jodie won a court order to open the adoption papers of the boy Tina Williams had given away. In February 1989 the Moores wore contacted—and stunned by the news that the child they had raised from infancy was never meant to be adopted. They had no intention of turning him over to Jodie Pope. “I’m more of a mother to Melvin than she is,” Edith declared at the time.
Jodie, likewise, had no intention of relinquishing Cameron, the boy she had raised and loved and whom she then adopted legally. She pursued her claim to Melvin in the courts. Superior Court Judge Frank Eldridge struggled to find a fair solution to a case with no obvious precedents. In October 1991 he ruled that while Jodie “is the biological, natural and lawful mother of the child.” there existed between Melvin and his adoptive parents “a bonding and familial relationship that no court ruling can undo.” In what was widely hailed as a Solomonlike decision, he awarded the Moores full custody of Melvin and granted Jodie liberal visitation. (In a 1991 settlement of a suit brought by both families, Griffin-Spalding Counts Hospital paid $900,000 to Jodie, the Moores and, via trusts, the two boys.)
The case might have been closed then had it not been for an appearance Jodie and the Moore’s made on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show a month after Judge Eldridge’s decision. No sooner had the show aired in late November than Jodie and her lawyer, Tommy) Malone, say they began receiving calls from neighbors of the Moores who told them that Melvin had been abused. Jodie says she asked Melvin, who was with her for Thanksgiving, if the stories were true. “He said, ‘Yes,’ ” says Paul. “Right then I told him, ‘Now, Melvin, I’m your momma, and I have the right to protect you…. It’s best if you stay with us, because I don’t want these things to happen to you.’ ”
With the backing of her new husband, whom she had supported during his own court battle for custody of his son the previous year, Jodie filed a special custody motion based on the abuse allegations. (Her lawyer notified the Moores’ lawyer that Melvin wouldn’t be returning as planned.) Her motion contained 10 affidavits from neighbors of the Moores at Port Knox—including some of Eugene’s Army colleagues—who said they had seen and heard Edith Moore abusing the boy physically and verbally and had complained to base authorities. (The base personnel who investigated did not find sufficient evidence to pursue the charges. No one testified that Eugene Moore, who was also moonlighting at a civilian job, had abused Melvin, and in only one instance was there testimony that he had been present when it look place.)
Among the numerous, detailed charges was the statement by Staff Sgt. Randall Kuchera, a neighbor, that he had seen Edith Moore beating Melvin with a broom in their front yard, hitting him so hard that Kuchera could hear each blow. Brenda I,. McKinney. a sergeant’s wife, claimed she had heard Edith Moore “cursing like a sailor…at Melvin Moore every single day.” Another neighbor, Sandra Marie Cline, said Moore told Melvin she was going to “trade him in for the little boy she was supposed to have gotten.”
“Edith would probably say in court, yes, she did curse at him,” concedes the Moores’ attorney David Gray. But, he maintains, “the child was the total opposite of abused. He was basically about the most spoiled boy around.” Gray says that while the Moores deny all charges of abuse. “they would rather be discussing them in court.”
That is likely to happen as soon as the Moores decide what their next move will be. Although Jodie Paul’s custody motion, with the affidavits, was included in the Supreme Court petition, her attorney explains that in rejecting the petition the court declined “to consider any aspect of the case.” Now with the end of the appeal process, the hands of lower courts are untied and they are free to rule on the custody issue. This could happen if and when the Moores’ lawyers renew a petition challenging the legality of Paul’s “detention of the child.”
Meanwhile it looks like a lonely Christmas for the Moores, whose presents for Melvin last year weren’t delivered by Jodie. “I personally knew how Melvin felt about those people,” Jodie explains. “I knew he was trying to forget that life.”
LUCHINA FISHER in Griffin