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
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballArsenal vs QPR match report
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all