She's Not Baby Jessica Anymore

ANNA JACQUELINE SCHMIDT was last seen wailing as she was moved from one set of parents to another after a custody battle that wrenched hearts. Now, she seems happy and content.

"WANNA PLAY?" IT'S 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and Anna Jacqueline Schmidt plops her 3-year-old body onto the floor of her bedroom. Soon she's reaching into her menagerie of stuffed animals and dolls and picking out the baby doll with the long hair and blue-and-white dress. What's her name? "Chloe," Anna says without hesitation. It's not just a reference to the doll but a paean to her real-life baby sister napping in the room next door. Moments later she retrieves another doll. What's her name? "Chloe," she smiles. Now she's back with a doll in one hand and a diaper in the other. "Wanna dress her?" she offers. Sure. What's her name? "Chloe." And the others? "Chloe," she giggles, then scampers off in search of new adventures.

In any other household, the scene would have been routine. But for Anna Schmidt, the ordinary is extraordinary. Eight months ago Anna was known as Baby Jessica, and pundits everywhere were dooming her to life in emotional hell. For 2 1/2 years she was at the heart of one of the most bitter custody battles in America, caught between the parents in Michigan who reared her and the parents in Iowa who gave birth to her and wanted her back. Though no adoption ever took place, Jessica symbolized every adoptive parent's nightmare. Her face filled magazine covers, her story became a movie of the week. And while congressmen and psychologists argued whose best interests were served by the tug of war, the vast majority of Americans in poll after poll supported the would-be adopters. The courts in both states disagreed. And so last August Jan and Roberta DeBoer were forced to return her to her biological parents, Dan and Cara Schmidt. The last time anyone saw Baby Jessica, she was wailing inconsolably as a van sped her from the only home she'd ever known.

But she's not Baby Jessica anymore, and the unhappy epilogue that was mapped out for her hasn't materialized. "Everyone guaranteed-guaranteed-that she would have short-term trauma, that she wouldn't eat, she wouldn't sleep, she'd cry. it didn't happen. She progressed, rapidly," Cara Schmidt says with a mix of triumph and relief. Within a month of moving to Iowa, Anna was toilet trained and had given up her bottle and pacifier-developmentally, right on schedule. And despite warnings, even the name change, Cara says, hasn't proved disastrous. Although the Schmidts vowed to call her Jessica, they clearly didn't like the name the DeBoers had given her. First they called her Jessica, then Jessianna. In November, Dan asked her if she wanted to shorten it to Anna, the name Cara had chosen. She agreed-and now calls herself "Annajacquelineschmidt."

Detroit psychoanalyst Lucy Biven, who was appointed by the Michigan courts to oversee Anna's transfer, believes that the Schmidts' elation isn't premature. "Anna never regressed, which meant her attachment to the Schmidts [forged during eight visits before the transfer] was good enough and strong enough that she used it to keep growing," Biven says. "Now, is it OK to separate a child from her parents? Is there no price to be paid? No. But I am heartened by [Anna's] adjustment and attachment."

Just how sturdy those bonds are may not be clear until Anna is older, but during a NEWSWEEK interview early this month-the Schmidts' longest since their daughter returned-they seemed like any other family with two kids, two jobs and a dog. Though that may not make them Ozzie and Harriet, they're not the Jacksons, either. At a Saturday-night dinner in a restaurant outside Cedar Rapids, they're a study in contrasts. Cara, 32, a vegetarian, picks at spaetzle, cottage cheese and cole slaw. Dan, a 42-year-old truckdriver whose stomach is bothering him tonight, orders an 18-ounce steak for two. Patiently, he cuts off a section and carves it into child-size squares for Anna. With the aplomb of Eloise at the Plaza, she picks up her fork and alternates dipping french fries (her favorite food) and steak bits into a pool of ketchup. When they're done, Anna and 9-month-old Chloe clamber onto Dan's lap and take turns planting kisses on his wide, round face-a larger version of Anna's own,

Back in Blairstown the next day, where their house still sports the last of the outdoor Christmas lights and the first of the indoor Easter trimmings, the mood is as unpretentious as the decor. Dan settles onto a living-room sofa, dressed in jeans and sport shirt, his size-12 feet cradled in blue corduroy slippers; Cara, still wearing the pink knit dress she put on for church, slips in close by. Despite their Midwest reserve-they don't act mushy in public-both are far more approachable than the brooding, square-jawed couple who had glared out from newspaper photos for months. Even more surprising is their often acerbic wit. Describing how DeBoer supporters used to slowly drive by their house to gawk, Cara quips, "We felt like we were in Graceland." "Yeah," Dan adds with a chortle, "but we learned what to do: we'd wave at them and they'd turn away."

For the record, the Schmidts say they're speaking out now because they fear that changes in state adoption laws proposed in the wake of the Baby Jessica furor might hurt the rights of birthparents. Still, there's another mission. After years of watching the DeBoers command the media spotlight-and the nation's sympathies-they want to tell their side of the story. "America has this terribly biased opinion that all adoptive parents are saints and all birthparents are trash," says Cara, a claims agent at a manufacturing company.

Since Anna left Ann Arbor there have been no phone calls from either side, no swaps of photos. When Anna turned 3 last month, Jan and Robby sent a large toy cottage, but after much debate among themselves, the Schmidts decided they will return it, unopened. "If we keep it, we're letting them intrude whenever they want," Dan says. Though the DeBoers declined to be interviewed, their attorney, Suellyn Scarnecchia, says they hope to have a relationship with Anna one day-though it could take years to happen, if ever. Bitterness runs deep. More than once, Cara offers a face-scrunching, body-shuddering parody of Robby sobbing-a cutting takeoff of how Robby often faced the press.

The Schmidts don't doubt that the weight of public opinion is against them. Only partly in jest, Cara says, "I have the greatest sympathy for Tonya Harding." Soon after they brought Anna home, Dan lost his trucking job because, he says, Sandra Baldwin, the president of the company, thought the DeBoers should have won; Baldwin says only, "We weren't satisfied with his performance." Around the same time, several members of the Schmidts' bowling league told them they were no longer welcome. And even though hate mail has trickled to one or two letters a day, everyone has something to say about Anna. Like the editorial writer for a local paper who recently complained that the Schmidts "cocoon" her. Cara was furious. "I wanted to write them a letter saying, 'We take her to church, we take her shopping, we take her wherever we go. What do you want us to do, put her out on display weekday evenings from 5 to 7, with matinees on Sunday?"'

When Cara Schmidt-who was Cara Clausen then-found out she was pregnant in the summer of 1990, she was 28, unmarried and certain she couldn't keep the baby. Not in tiny Blairstown (population: 672), a farm community 25 miles west of Cedar Rapids where the moral code is as stark as the silos. She was terrified of shaming her family. "I totally blocked out every option. I just didn't discuss it with anyone." Especially not Dan. A month after she'd gotten pregnant, Dan and Cara broke up; by Christmas, she had an engagement ring from a trucker named Scott Seefeldt, who neither questioned whose baby it was nor expressed an interest in keeping it. Cara, who once worked as a nanny to two adopted children, began making her own plans.

The path led straight to Jan and Robby DeBoer-through John Riccolo, a Cedar Rapids lawyer married to Robby's cousin, who knew Cara's doctor. Who could deny the De Boers' euphoria? For 10 years they'd tried to conceive a baby or to adopt one. And though Iowa law bars signing a release of custody until at least 72 hours after a birth, everything seemed set. "NONE NONE CLAUSEN,-, as she was officially known, was born at 7:02 p.m. on Feb. 8, 1991, but the adoption process started unraveling even before it began. In defiance of the 72-hour law, Cara contends, the DeBoers' attorney, John Monroe, persuaded her to waive her rights after 40 hours. Soon after, Cara compounded her mistake. Monroe, she says, called her at work, demanding the name of the father; upset and feeling pressured, Cara bed and named Seefeldt, who signed away what he thought were his paternal rights. Monroe insists that Cara wanted to give up the baby early. And he says she deliberately created her own legal morass' by deceiving everyone about the father.

WHATEVER THE TRUTH, BOTH issues proved pivotal. Nineteen days after the baby was born-and two days after the DeBoers got custody-Cara told Dan the truth. "I hated myself," says Cara, who'd broken up with Seefeldt by then, "and I wanted Dan to bate me, too." They joined forces instead. Dan had fathered a son, Travis, now 17, in an earlier marriage, and a daughter, Amanda, now 14, in what he says was a one-night stand. And while he'd lost both of them to their mothers, he had no intention of losing this child. Jessica was 3 1/2 weeks old when Cara sued to have her maternal rights restored, and Dan staked his own legal claim later that month-points the public seemed to have forgotten as the battle dragged on.

Stunned that they might lose the child they had waited so long to get, the DeBoers refused to give her back without a fight. When one Iowa court after another ruled against them, they took the case to Michigan, hoping-without success-to win on the broader question of a child's best interests. By the time the legal wrangling ended last July, the case had dragged on for 29 months. Dan can't understand why. "After they had her for nine days, they knew they couldn't keep her," he says angrily. "This is our flesh and blood, mine and Cara's." Could he see any situation in which a child shouldn't go back? "Sure. If the adoption was final, there would have been nothing I could have done."

Yet the DeBoers owned the moral high ground. In part because they looked as if they'd just stepped out of a Volvo ad, conventional wisdom believed the DeBoers would be better parents. In fact, the Schmidts earned slightly more money than Jan, a printer, and Robby, an interior decorator. And Cara, who finished two years of college, has more education than Robby. Still, the public mistook the Schmidts for beer-guzzlin' truckers living in a trailer with hubcaps nailed to the side-just as an ABC movie of the week portrayed them. "It was a class war," says Dan. "The Yuppies of Ann Arbor versus the hayseeds from Iowa. "

BAD BLOOD SPILLED ALL OVER THE monthlong process of preparing Jessica for the move. The plan was for Jessica to develop an affectionate relationship with Dan and Cara, to accept them as something akin to close family friends. Emotions kept getting in the way. One Friday, on a visit to Ann Arbor, Cara's mother, Earlene Clausen, and Dan's mother, Mary Dickinson, paid a surprise visit to the DeBoers. They were told to come back Sunday-when a therapist and cops were on hand to supervise. "I don't know what they thought two older women were going to do," says Earlene, 66, who baby-sits Anna and Chloe nearly every day. Scarnecchia says they thought the grandmothers might "frighten" Jessica, or perhaps try to run off with her-as the Schmidts suspected the DeBoers might do.

The most difficult link-the one between Dan and his daughter-didn't happen until Robby dropped out of the last two sessions. "Anna asked me if I wanted to get on the floor with her-on her pink thermal blanket-and I did," says Dan, laughing at the recollection of his 6-foot-4, 270-pound body on a tot-size blanket. First they played peekaboo, then giggled as they pointed to each other's forehead, then she served him "tea." Dan was thrilled.

Why did Jessica weep so bitterly as she left the DeBoers' house on Pear Street? The Schmidts claim the DeBoers kept her up all night to guarantee that the waiting cameras would snap a screaming child. Scarnecchia insists that Jessica, who'd been told she was going to Iowa, was sad because she "knew something bad was happening." No one escaped the day's tension. To avoid the press, the Schmidts, who'd been hiding at a friend's Ann Arbor house, were driven over back routes to a local Chevrolet dealership. They climbed into a van, where they sat for 1 1/2 hours, eating ham sandwiches and waiting for word to head to the police station.

There, Anna was swept from one van to another, exhausted and wailing, "Daddy! Daddy!" She stopped when she saw Cara. "Cara always used to bring gum, and she loved it," says Biven. "So, she asked for some. She ate one piece, chewed for 15 seconds, spit it out in Cara's hand." She did that with a few more pieces, then noticed that everyone was smiling at her. "It was strange but sort of heartwarming," Biven says. "Everyone wanted so much to make her feel good." Don Massey, a pilot who donated his seven-seater Piper Navajo for the two-hour flight from Michigan to Iowa, says that Jessica spent the trip eating Necco wafers and playing with gifts. "I actually saw a calmness come over her the farther west we went," he says. The Schmidts say she has been that way ever since. "When Anna came home, it was like she had just been on vacation for a while," says Dan's sister, Rob Albertson.

But what of her past? Cara says her daughter has only begun talking about it. For months, Cara would ask, "What do you miss most about Pear Street?" And for months, she would respond, "The roof " One night last month, when Anna couldn't find a favorite book, she began crying uncontrollably. She couldn't explain why, so Cara asked, "If it's because you miss the people on Pear Street, let's talk about it." Anna talked about Jan and Robby and told Cara "they were nice" to her. Then she talked about the day she left-about how "everyone was screaming," about all the cameras and about how "I got in the van and was crying and crying." Now, Cara says, "I will never forgive them for that."

Does that mean Anna is certain to suffer, if not today, perhaps a decade from now? Many professionals think so. "You really don't know what will happen with a crack in a foundation until it's asked to weather some external force," says Sally Rutzky, one of the guardians appointed to oversee Anna's best interests during the Michigan hearings. But there are no certainties. As David Zinn, a child psychiatrist at Northwestern University, puts it, "This girl has good genes. She's a survivor."

One day, when Anna is a little older and a lot gutsier, Dan and Cara say they will tell her "the whole truth"-or whatever truth can be divined in a battle so emotionally charged. Out in a corner of their garage, they keep some of the evidence, mountains of hate mail, including a letter written on a brick-size two-by-four. What they can't know now is whether the story will seem like a sad but distant memory to Anna. Or whether it will mark her for life.

She's Not Baby Jessica Anymore | News