Learning To Live Without Jessi

BABY JESSICA IS VERY MUCH ALIVE, but when Jan and Robby DeBoer watched her carried out' of their lives last summer, they endured a death, Death demands mourning. So on Aug. 4, two days after the transfer, 200 of the DeBoers' supporters crowded into the Friends Meeting House in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a two-hour "Time of Remembering." "It was a way of being together and acknowledging what had happened and wishing jessi well," says Annie Rose, president of the Ann Arbor-based DeBoer Committee for Children's Rights. The DeBoers have since stopped talking to the press, but friends say the events of last summer still dominate the couple's life. They see a therapist, they send Christmas and birthday presents to the child, and they cling to the hope they will see her someday.

They have no illusions about getting her back. The DeBoers fought a long legal battle to keep Dan and Cara Schmidt from reclaiming the child they conceived, but once she was gone they stopped filing court appeals. They didn't want to compound the child's suffering by uprooting her yet again, says Suellyn Scarnecchia, the Michigan lawyer who represented them. They also recognized that their odds of winning were slim. The DeBoers did hope to stay in touch with Jessica, and two of their supporters tried to clear the way. Linette and Wayne Atwood, who publish convention newsletters in Overland Park, Kans., offered to pay the Schmidts' legal debts and help them financially if they extended visitation rights to the DeBoers. "We thought it would be in Jessi's best interest to at least be allowed to see these people on some consistent basis," says Linette Atwood. But the Schmidts declined. Their lawyer, Pam Lewis, says that accepting the offer would have amounted to "child-selling."

Raw feelings still abound. But while Cara Schmidt ekes of naming her hemorrhoids "Jan" and "Robby," friends depict the DeBoers as struggling to put their bitterness aside. "They're still deeply concerned for Jessi," says Rose, "and of course they miss her terribly. Time is what's going to help heal them." Robby is writing a book called "Losing Jessica," which Doubleday will publish next August. "I am writing this book to leave a permanent record for Jessica when she gets older and to let the world know how this tragedy-and travesty of justice-unfolded," Robby says in a press release issued by the publisher last week. "Jan and I hope that Jessica has found happiness with her new family. We care, as always, for her well-being and wish Dan and Cara Schmidt all the best."

The DeBoers' supporters, for their part, have expanded what started as a one-child crusade into a broader national movement. When Jessica was turned over to the Schmidts last summer, the justice for jessi committee regrouped as the DeBoer Committee for Children's Rights. With 51 chapters and 2,000 members in 36 states, the committee publishes a newsletter (Hear My Voice), sponsors an 800 number (4RJESSI) and organizes marches to protest what members view as unjust custody rulings. "Our chapters go out and [distribute] information about a child who is going through a situation like Jessi's," says Rose. "In some cases, it's literally a high-school kid who's being forced to go through visitations with abusive [biological] parents." The DeBoers aren't marching; they're still grieving. But they haven't given up on parenthood. They now say they hope to adopt in the future.

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