"Right there," Lindsey says, pointing at the man in the rocker.
"Where's your mommy?" Bonnie asks.
"Right here," Lindsey says, tugging on Bonnie's arm.
Even by the precious standard of three-year-olds, Lindsey Maibach is irresistible. She wears a peach-colored shirt, a denim dress hemmed with flowers, and two clips in her dark curly hair. Sensing there is adult business at hand, she occupies herself with Clifford the Big Red Dog books and a slinky toy. When a lap opens up, she climbs aboard. Her smile makes the constellations seem trivial.
But according to an Oklahoma appeals court, Lindsey is mistaken about the identity of her mom and dad. The Rittman couple who have taken care of her since birth are, in the eyes of the law, merely temporary custodians. Lindsey is being gradually removed from the home and sent to one or both of her biological parents in Oklahoma.
Most adoptions don't run this way. In the wake of Baby Richard and Baby Jessica -- adopted children later reclaimed by their birth parents -- legislatures have passed laws to keep families like the Maibachs intact. In Ohio, once a man has sex with a woman outside marriage, he is on notice that he must sign up with a state registry within 30 days of the child's birth to make a custody claim. Notwithstanding protections like these, the Maibachs are running out of judges to rule in their favor. By summer's end, Lindsey may be gone forever.
When asked if she has prepared herself to lose Lindsey, Bonnie Maibach answers the question quickly, as if to eject the notion from her consciousness. "I haven't."
Five years ago, Stacy Carr was studying education at Southeastern Oklahoma State University when he met Jaime Lynch. She was a high school senior. A few weeks after they met through friends, Carr left to attend another school in northeastern Oklahoma. He then decided to become a cop, dropped out, and moved to Hartshorne, 90 miles from Lynch's home in Durant.
Carr and Lynch stayed in touch. By February 1997, they were sleeping together.
Over the Fourth of July weekend that year, Lynch visited Carr in Hartshorne. She seemed upset; Carr asked her what was wrong. Lynch thought she was pregnant. "Okay," Carr said, and they didn't discuss their predicament anymore that weekend. A pregnancy test later confirmed Lynch's suspicion.
Carr, who is now 26, was willing to care for the baby, but he didn't want to do it with Lynch. He wouldn't object if she sought an abortion, he says, but when Lynch suggested adoption, he balked. "I said that wasn't feasible, as far as I was concerned. I thought one of the two of us should have it. If she didn't want it, I was more than willing to take care of it."
A week later, they spoke again. Lynch wanted to visit Carr. He told her to stay put. "You need to save your money," he said. She interpreted this to mean he didn't want to see her, period.
For the next four months, they had no contact. Carr and his mother tried to reach Lynch at a house she shared with three roommates, but she had moved into a trailer with no phone. After a month in the trailer, she moved in with her parents. Lynch still hoped to find a couple to adopt the baby.
In October, she went to Fort Worth, Texas, to carry the child to term at the Gladney Center for Adoption. The center called Carr to ask for his consent. He refused, and without his OK, the center wouldn't allow Lynch to stay without paying room and board. She moved back home. (Through her mother, Lynch declined to be interviewed.)
On November 13, 1997, Lynch finally contacted Carr to talk about the pregnancy. Four days later, they met with a priest and their mothers. Gwendolyn Carr, 62, tried to assure Lynch that, between herself and Stacy's sister, the baby would be well cared for. "No," Lynch said, according to Mrs. Carr. "You're too old." Lynch could not be swayed from choosing adoption. The next day, Carr filed a paternity action, asking for custody upon the child's birth.
But Lynch moved again -- her fifth move of the pregnancy -- to live with an aunt in Oklahoma City. She gave birth to a girl on February 26, 1998. Carr didn't learn the baby had been born until she had already been taken to Ohio by her new parents.
Sterling, Ohio native Dean Maibach (pronounced "May-bah") met his wife at an apostolic church gathering in Connecticut. They married 13 years ago and settled in Rittman.
When they wed, the couple knew they would never have biological children. At 24, Bonnie had a hysterectomy. Dean suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a progressive nerve disorder that left him too weak to maintain his dairy farm. Today, Dean is the maintenance man at a tree orchard. His strong hands and shoulders suggest a man who delivers a day's work without complaint. But any children he fathers would stand a good chance of inheriting his disease.
Still, the couple longed for children. They fostered a child but found little reward in freelance parenting. Bonnie, especially, wanted to raise a child from infancy. "I think she always had the instinct to have her own baby," Dean, 46, says of Bonnie, 42. Even in her company, he refers to her as "my wife."
Once, a Rittman girl became pregnant, and preparations were made for the Maibachs to adopt. Five months into her term, the mother decided to keep the baby. The Maibachs then chose to go the agency route, a process typically short on options and long on bureaucracy. They lost another child when the birth mother changed her mind on the day of birth.
"Of course, white babies are hard to come by," Dean says. So the couple hastened their quest by applying for a biracial baby. Yet the search crept. And the Maibachs didn't appreciate social workers telling them they had to nurture a biracial child's identity by hanging pictures of black people on the wall. "Like it's their business how we're going to raise the child," Bonnie says.
She explored the Internet. During her searches, she found John T. and Barbara Bado, an Oklahoma husband-and-wife attorney team. Members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, they specialize in bringing birth mothers and adoptive parents together. They handle two to four cases a month in a state where the laws are considered adoption-friendly. Unlike in Ohio, birth mothers and adoptive couples are allowed to advertise.
Barbara Bado told Bonnie she knew of a young woman who was due in two weeks. Another couple had apparently backed out. Bonnie rushed their portfolio and a "Dear Birth Mom" letter to Oklahoma for the woman to read. The woman liked what she saw: a Christian, two-parent home. The Maibachs were almost old enough to be her own parents.
The couple flew to Oklahoma the day the baby was born. It was a closed adoption, so the two parties didn't meet. At the hospital, Bonnie caught a glimpse of Jaime Lynch in a recovery room and exchanged a few words with her father.
The Maibachs paid the Bados about $8,000 to handle the adoption, catching a break on the price because of the short notice. After a night in a hotel, they flew back to Ohio with their new daughter, whom they named Lindsey Joy.
"A miracle," Bonnie says. "A miracle -- it really was."
All was not blessed, however. Stacy Carr, the birth father, had never consented to the adoption.
When they took custody of Lindsey, the Maibachs understood there were legal hurdles in need of clearing. But any price seemed small compared to the bundle they now held. From their first night together, Lindsey was an easy baby -- playful by day, a sound sleeper at night.
In Oklahoma, the courts can terminate a birth father's rights if he fails to support the mother during pregnancy. The Maibachs asked a judge to find the father's consent unnecessary. They also signed a document that said they assumed a risk, since the rights of the father had yet to be decided judicially. They were under the impression, though, this was standard procedure. "[Mr.] Bado said, 'I see no problems. We do a lot of adoptions like this,'" Dean says.
At first, their path appeared smooth. In June 1998, when Lindsey was not yet four months old, an Oklahoma court ruled that Carr failed to adequately assert his rights, and that he never made Lynch "an unconditional offer of financial assistance."
Lindsey's life in Rittman could proceed.
But Carr appealed. His lawyers had to show he was not some jerk who treated the pregnancy as something to be brushed away and forgotten. They presented a thoughtful man whose efforts were thwarted by a flaky and scorned ex-girlfriend.
Lynch testified that she asked Carr and his family to cover her medical expenses. Carr said that he volunteered, but she never sent him bills. For most of the pregnancy, Carr worked part-time at a hospital and took criminal-justice classes. Since he didn't have health insurance, twice he mailed Lynch information about welfare benefits. When his work at the hospital went full-time, he inquired about extending medical coverage to his unborn child and her mother. (Because they were not married, Lynch did not qualify.) He also opened a credit-union account, bought diapers, and put bottles and blankets on layaway at Wal-Mart.
Though Carr never supported Lynch directly, his lawyer argued that, during the pregnancy, Lynch either wouldn't accept help or couldn't be found.
After the November 1997 meeting with their mothers, Lynch again broke off contact. Carr and his mother repeatedly called Lynch's parents, but were told only that Jaime was not there and was doing fine.
"I had no earthly idea where she was," Carr says.
A mutual friend supports his claim. Eva Jones testified that she confronted Carr when she heard he wasn't supporting Lynch. He told Jones that he had tried, but Lynch kept him in the dark. Jones then confronted Lynch. "Well, that's true," Lynch responded, according to Jones, "but I don't want their sympathy."
Lynch, Jones said, was angry that Carr didn't want to raise the child with her.
After the birth, Carr took additional steps. He filed with the state's centralized paternity registry, added the baby to his health and life insurance policies, and sent Lynch $175. But Gwendolyn Carr says Lynch's family kept throwing up walls. According to Mrs. Carr, Lynch's father said, "Don't you or your son call here ever again."
In May 1999, a three-judge panel reversed the trial court. The decision was unanimous: Carr had sufficiently asserted his rights and assumed responsibility "in spite of Mother's hindrance."
"It wasn't like we just came in right before the baby was born," Gwendolyn Carr says. "We wanted the baby all along."
His paternity rights instated, Carr still had to show he deserved custody. As allowed under Oklahoma law, the Maibachs asked to keep Lindsey in the meantime. The judge ordered that Carr be allowed to travel to Ohio to have supervised visits with Lindsey. He met his daughter for the first time in January 2000; she was a month shy of her second birthday. "It was happy and scary all at once," Carr says.
And Lynch reentered the picture. She withdrew her consent to the adoption. If the Maibachs couldn't have her, she wanted Lindsey.
In February, a judge ruled that Carr is fit to be Lindsey's father. The judge awarded joint legal custody to the birth parents. Rather than snatch Lindsey out of the Maibachs' home, the court ordered extensive visitation for both Carr and Lynch until the date and terms of a permanent transfer are set.
Bonnie Maibach, hair bunned and makeup-free, has the stern look of a Grant Wood subject. But when she plays with Lindsey, a warm smile soothes the hardness in her face. Even more than most mothers, Bonnie sees Lindsey as a gift: A few days after she was born, Bonnie's father died while vacationing in Texas.
"It's my wife's life," Dean says.
Accordingly, the couple refuse to let go until they've exhausted every legal option. The Maibachs asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn the appellate ruling. They also asked Wayne County Probate Court to rule on their adoption, but thus far, Ohio judges have deferred to the robes in Oklahoma.
Today, the Maibachs find themselves exhausted, emotionally and financially. They aren't sure how they're going to pay the legal bills, which Bonnie says have crossed the $100,000 mark. But the debt will feel like a pinprick compared to the prospect of an empty house. "She's a perfect baby," Dean says.
The fight is leaving bitter scars. The Maibachs insist that Lindsey is frightened of Carr. That he cuts his visits short. That he doesn't take care of two-year-old Joshua, a child he fathered with another woman.
"He's a big black man," Mrs. Maibach says with a lowered voice. "He just stares at her."
Bonnie has only good things to say about Lynch, who visited Rittman in May. "Her birth mother looks like she could be my sister," Bonnie says. "We have the same personality, strange enough."
Carr doesn't exactly dispel the suspicion that he's more interested in legacy than parenting. "Just in my personal view, the only thing we can ever say we have in this world is our kids," he says. It's a sentiment he repeats later in the conversation. He has, at least, given up on the idea of renaming her Haley.
Gwendolyn Carr has heard the accusation that she is the one leading the charge for Lindsey. Bonnie calls her Cruella De Vil, after the flamboyant villainess of 101 Dalmatians.
"They have to find someone to put the blame on," Mrs. Carr says. "It's me, and that's OK."
Mrs. Carr insists that Stacy is calling the shots, and that if he decided to give up, she wouldn't say a word. However, "I do think if he's any kind of man at all, he should make the right decision and take care of her."
The Maibachs are not alone in thinking unkind thoughts about the Carrs. Kyla Sanders is the mother of Kimberly Hartsell, who gave birth to Carr's son, Joshua. In May, the same day Carr appeared in court for a proceeding in the Lindsey matter, he was asking for custody of Joshua before another judge. "He's putting us through the same thing," Sanders says. She believes Gwendolyn Carr is the instigator in their custody battle as well. "He doesn't have any business with the babies -- none at all."
Calling him a "jerk," Sanders says she inquired about having statutory rape charges filed against Carr. But Hartsell was 16 at the time she was impregnated -- old enough to consent, according to Oklahoma law.
The Maibachs' desperation is palpable. Their Ohio attorneys are making the curious argument that, since Carr failed to support the child while she was in the Maibachs' care, an adoption should be granted. If Carr wins, says Columbus attorney Susan Eisenman, he will be at best a part-time dad. "The mother is going to raise the child, rather than he."
Hear My Voice, a Michigan-based advocacy group for foster and adoptive parents, also wrote motions on Lindsey's behalf, asking Wayne County to issue a restraining order, keeping her in Ohio. Lindsey signed the motions in crayon.
"This is the person with the most at stake and the least to say," Hear My Voice Director Debbie Grabarkiewicz says. The motions were denied.
Gary Taylor, Carr's legal-aid attorney, calls efforts to litigate the case in Ohio "an obvious case of forum shopping." Taylor says he feels compassion for the Maibachs, but "my client has been denied three years of contact with his child unreasonably and illegally."
At first, the Maibachs wouldn't consider mediation. Now, as the rulings against them mount, they say they would come to the table. But Carr knows he's holding the stronger hand. "It's been mentioned, but I really don't see that's workable," he says. "We differ on how kids should be raised. That's nothing against the Maibachs; we just differ on how kids should be raised." Carr has said that Lindsey "needs to get to know our way of life," which the Maibachs take to mean a "black" way of life.
If the chance of compromise existed -- the Maibachs retain custody, say, but Carr has a presence in Lindsey's life -- its time has passed. A poison needs to be picked.
John T. and Barbara Bado, the attorneys who coordinated the doomed adoption, appear to bear great responsibility for the case arriving at this hopeless juncture. Adoption is a unique branch of law. Given the desperate states of adoptive and birth parents, it's easy for child "placement" to drift into child "procurement." In Ohio, the laws frown upon the appearance of baby brokering. Adoptive parents cannot pay the birth mother's living expenses, as they can in states like Oklahoma.
The Bados make their living from adoption work, which some attorneys find dubious. Cleveland attorney Dennis Norman has worked on adoptions since 1971. His gentle demeanor is unusual for the lawyer's trade. "This is one of the few areas of law where everyone can come out a winner," he says.
Norman has been involved in about 1,000 adoptions, but he doesn't believe in profiting from it, though wishful couples have told him to name a price. Injury work provides his livelihood. "Even I do not make a living doing adoptions," he says.
He's not a solitary altruist. "The most I've ever made from an adoption is $3,200," says Becky Blair, a family lawyer in Cleveland.
Mr. Bado and his wife have been placing children for almost two decades, and their names are well known in Oklahoma's pregnancy-crisis circles. "We do not solicit birth mothers," Bado says. "They have to find us and make the first call."
Lynch contacted the Bados when she was six months pregnant. They soon found out that Carr had already asserted his paternity rights in Pittsburg County. The Bados put the adoption in motion anyway, filing to have those rights revoked in Oklahoma County, where the child would be born. Mr. Bado was confident he could prove Carr had not done enough to make his consent necessary. "We knew that the judge would probably terminate his rights, which he did."
The appeals court saw it differently. Bado compares the difference in judicial opinion to two pedestrians watching the same car whiz by: One says the car is red; the other says it's green.
Indeed, there are two Stacy Carrs. One Stacy Carr accepted his responsibility. He saved money and outfitted a nursery. He's worked toward a career as a policeman. He has a strong family support system. He cared, whereas so many other unmarried fathers don't.
The other Stacy Carr is a bum. While Lynch was weeks away from delivering Lindsey, he knocked up a 16-year-old. Both women have fought to deny him custody of his children. He's an able-bodied 26-year-old, but qualified for legal aid as a pauper. Bado says that Carr doesn't live with his mother, as he says, but with a woman in a house his mother owns.
For all of Carr's flaws, real and imagined, the Bados appear to have underestimated him. More important, they underestimated his case. Mr. Bado says the Maibachs were aware of the stakes. "They knew that the paternity suit had been started," he says. "They knew it was going to be a tough, contested case."
But he doesn't deny telling the Maibachs "I see no problems. We do a lot of adoptions like this."
"In our opinion, he would lose," Bado thought at the time.
Bruce Boyer, an attorney at Northwestern University's Children and Family Justice Center, was one of Baby Richard's birth father's attorneys. In that case, the birth mother told the father their child died during delivery. In fact, she chose adoption. The father eventually won custody. By then, the boy was four years old. Helicopters photographed the dramatic transfer from his adoptive parents.
Boyer says birth fathers seldom come forward to contest adoptions, but when they do, adoption attorneys should be vigilant. "If you don't catch the problems at the front end, there's no way to solve them cleanly two, three years down the road."
The decision to remove a child from an adoptive home is so wrenching, Boyer says, many judges will look for any fallibility in the birth parents to deny them custody. He thinks it irresponsible for attorneys to force judges to play Solomon. "Forget the father. It's not fair to the child."
The Maibachs are split on the quality of the Bados' counsel, which has cost them thousands on top of the adoption fee.
"He's been good to us," Dean says.
"He only gained $50,000 from us," Bonnie says, her voice iced with sarcasm.
Bado is confident Lindsey will remain with the Maibachs: "I don't think this court here is going to allow her to be injured and grievously harmed by yanking her out of the only home she's ever known and making her live in Oklahoma."
Of course, he's been wrong before.
In June, Lindsey and the Maibachs flew to Oklahoma for a week's worth of visits with her birth parents. "She's already talking like she don't want to go," Dean Maibach said before the trip. Since the visitations began, Bonnie says, Lindsey suffers from nightmares, breaks out in rashes, and grinds her teeth. It hasn't been any easier on the Maibachs. The first time Dean took Lindsey to Oklahoma, in May, he says, "It almost did me in."
The source of Lindsey's panic, the Maibachs say, is Carr. "He might be a father, but he sure ain't a dad," Bonnie says.
The Carrs see the relationship differently.
"We played good that first time," Stacy Carr says.
"From what I understand, she went right to him, and they had a good time," his mother says.
"It goes OK, considering the fact we're not around each other," Stacy says. "Every time we're away, we have to feel each other out all over again."
Stacy and his mother think that, with love and patience, Lindsey can adjust to a new home. "I'm concerned about it, but with the right people around, I feel it will be OK," Stacy says. "Set up counseling and make sure she knows she's loved."
Dean Maibach has accepted that one day, probably soon, he will likely have to pack Lindsey's belongings. There will be a goodbye of such anguish, it seems beyond the human threshold. Bonnie copes with the possibility by ignoring it.
"My wife . . ." Dean says.
Bonnie cups her ear toward his trailing voice.
" . . . has a lot of faith in Ohio judges."
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