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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 1999 / 9 Kislev, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Put the babies first
in this mighty mess --

It is not surprising that in an infamous switched-baby case the families, whom I once praised for selflessness, ultimately abandoned the high road and hired lawyers.

What is surprising is that the court did the right thing. The judge sent the feuding adults home and, at least for now, has left the babies' psyches intact. A horror story comes to a noble, if not strictly happy, end.

The case -- a script made for bad TV -- came to light in August 1998 when an unmarried mother sought genetic testing for a paternity suit. Paula Johnson discovered not only that her then-boyfriend wasn't Daddy but also she wasn't even Mommy.

Her baby, the one she birthed in 1995 at the University of Virginia Medical Center, had gone home with another couple, who later were killed in an automobile accident.

Callie, whom Johnson is raising, is actually the child of the dead couple. Johnson's bio-baby, named Rebecca, is being raised by the parents of the dead couple.

One can only imagine the agony of discovering that the child you've raised and loved is not your own, and that your flesh and blood is being raised by strangers.

Yet the two families initially handled their confusion and grief with exceptional dignity.

They met, exchanged stories, photos and hugs and made the right decision: Both children would stay with the families they knew and loved. Johnson would have a relationship with her biological child, Rebecca, but agreed not to uproot her.

The fact that these former strangers reached such a sensible agreement without lawyers or litigation prompted me to write a celebratory column, soon to be tinder for my first fall fire.

During the past several months, I've followed the progress (regress?) of the two families as disputes evolved. The grandparents who had custody of Rebecca denied Johnson visits with the child, saying they feared the mother would kidnap the child. Johnson sued for custody.

It is impossible to doubt Johnson's love for both of her children -- the one she raised and the one she bore. No one can fault the woman for wanting to have a larger role in her biological daughter's life. It also is easy to understand the grandparents' fears.

Even so, no matter how the hearts and minds of adults may suffer and rue, only the children matter. You don't take a child from the only home she knows. Biology is not more important than family, stability and love.

That was true with Baby Richard and Baby Jessica and all the other less famous babies out there whose luck or misfortune landed them in loving, adoptive homes only to be ripped away by bad law, bad judgment and egocentric gratification masquerading as biological imperative.

So, apparently, thought Juvenile and Domestive Relations Judge John B. Curry II of Virginia. He ruled last week that Rebecca will stay with her grandparents and continue to develop a relationship with Johnson. To do otherwise, according to a psychologist's testimony, would damage the child, who has suffered much loss.

The fighting is far from over, unfortunately. The fate of Callie -- the child Johnson has raised as her own -- is now up for grabs. Both Johnson and one set of grandparents have filed for custody of the child. Let's hope Curry gets the case. Let's hope too that everyone steers clear of the higher courts, which often in the past have reversed similar sane orders.

The pessimist wishes to be disappointed.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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