Toddler loses in adoption tug of war: Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington on the end of a legal battle which has gripped America's heart

JUST conceivably, the law, in its unfeeling complexity, could provide one more wrenching coup de theatre. But beyond most reasonable doubt, a Supreme Court ruling by Justice John Paul Stevens this week has written the last word in an adoption tug of war that has gripped all America. By Monday, a 2 1/2 -year girl now called Jessica DeBoer must be returned to her biological parents whom a month ago she never knew existed.

It is a story that started on 8 February 1991, when an unmarried Iowa factory worker named Cara Clausen gave birth to a daughter. Within a month, a legal battle had started that would span two states and two families of utterly different backgrounds. It would generate countless newspaper and television features, and a passionate national debate on the whole US practice of adoption and childrens' rights.

At first Cara waived her parental rights. When word reached Jan and Roberta DeBoer, a Michigan couple who could have no children of their own, they lost no time. They obtained releases from both Cara and the father she had named on the birth certificate, took the little girl into their home, and embarked on the formal adoption process. Within six months the baby would legally be theirs.

But within days it began to go wrong. Cara told her ex-boyfriend Dan Schmidt, Jessica's real father, what had happened. First the mother, and then Dan, had second thoughts. In March 1991 they began legal proceedings to regain their daughter, and in December an Iowa court ordered the DeBoers to return the child.

At that point, the saga might have ended. But the DeBoers chose to fight on. Dan Schmidt, it emerged, had already fathered two children by different mothers but shown no interest. Was he, they argued, fit to be Jessica's father? Their appeals meandered through the legal systems first of Iowa and then Michigan, with little success. But all the while they kept custody of Jessica, creating the only home she knows. That home is about to be torn asunder.

So who is right and who is wrong? Public opinion, driven by pictures of a blissfully happy little girl playing with the model middle-class couple she believes to be her real parents, overwhelmingly sides with the DeBoers. For most of America, Cara and Dan Schmidt are the feckless destroyers of other peoples' lives. But the truth is far less clear-cut.

For one thing, Cara and Dan have now married. Then there is the simple essence of Justice Stevens' ruling. 'Neither Iowa law, Michigan law nor federal law,' he wrote, 'authorises unrelated persons to retain custody of a child whose natural parents have not been found to be unfit simply because they may be better able to provide for her future and her education.' Had the DeBoers and their lawyers acknowledged that reality at the outset, much of the subsequent heartbreak could have been avoided.

Like it or not, many experts have noted, US law almost invariably gives priority to the claims of the birth parents. Once Cara had filed her first claim to recover her daughter on 6 March 1991 - less than a month after the birth - the DeBoers should have read the writing on the wall. Instead, says one adoption specialist, 'they've managed to pervert the whole issue of a child's best interests'.

There is, of course, one easy target - an intricate legal system and the separate state and federal jurisdictions which allow endless appeal procedures. But few contested custody battles, pitting the sanctity of blood ties against the perceived happiness of a child, are not harrowing. And the Schmidt case is even more complicated. Unusually, it has partly hinged on the rights of a birth father, little- charted waters in American law.

For countless other adoptive parents here, the hugely publicised case has been a separate trauma. Every year 50,000 children are adopted. 'There are dozens of families out there, in the same situation as the DeBoers,' warns one adoption lawyer. Complicating matters is the shortage of children available through standard public agencies. With demand outstripping supply by 40 to one, many prospective parents choose private adoptions, permitted by Iowa and several other states. But as the DeBoers have heartrendingly discovered, legal pitfalls abound.

To all intents and purposes, their cause is now lost. Technically, the DeBoers could ask the whole Supreme Court to overrule Justice Stevens. But the chances of that are minute. Within five days, a little girl's entire life will be turned on its head. Her home, even her name will change. Jessica DeBoer will become Anna Lee Clausen Schmidt. And if she is very, very lucky, it will be as if the controversy surrounding the first 30 months of her life had never been.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links