Monday, July 6, 2009

Baby Richard and Crimes of Omission

by Julia Buckley
I recently wrote about a perceived injustice in the Chicago legal system (perceived by an angry public, that is), in which a Chicago police officer who beat up a female bartender for not serving him more alcohol walked away from his trial with no jail time. (That post, and its related video evidence, is here).

Writing about that verdict reminded me of the last time I felt irate over a Chicago-area legal decision: the Baby Richard Case.

Even if you're not from Chicago you probably remember Baby Richard (whose real name is Danny Kirchner). He was a baby born to Daniella Janikova in 1991; she willingly gave him up, and he was adopted by the Warburton family, who already had one natural-born son. Janikova told her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Otakar Kirchner, that their child had died. When Kirchner found out that he had a living son and that he'd been adopted, he sought to intervene in the adoption. The Warburtons fought him.

The case was in the courts for four years; in that time Baby Richard bonded with his adoptive parents--the only parents he'd ever known--and his brother. Otakar Kirchner and his girlfriend married, and, united, they appealed to the courts to let them reclaim their son.

In June of 1994, in a decision that shocked Chicagoland, Justice James Heiple ruled that the boy should be returned to his biological father. With news cameras rolling, the crying four-year-old child was pried out of his mother's arms and handed to a man that he did not know.

Even fifteen years later I think of Baby Richard often. I talk about him to my students, who are about the age he would be now. I think about how much of an identity a child forms by the age of four, and reflect about how much damage might have been done when the boy was transferred to new parents--and given a new name. Rather than let him keep the name the Warburtons had given him, the Kirchners gave him the name they wanted for him: Danny.

Added to that, little "Richard" was separated from his older brother. Although the Kirchners had promised that the boys could still see each other, that never happened. Both boys lost a brother that day. When I think of my own two sons and of the bond they have shared since the little one's infancy, I find this part of the case to be particularly heartbreaking.

In 1997, more than two years after Baby Richard, aka Danny, was transferred from one set of parents to another, his real father, Otakar Kirchner, moved out. The boy lives with his mother Daniela, the woman who originally gave him up for adoption.

A book defending the Kirchners was written by Karen Moriarty, a therapist who observed the transfer of the little boy, and who reported that he had adjusted well.

Defenders of the Warburtons, however, suggested that not only had they built a happy and stable home for their adopted son, but that they were cheated out of any further meetings with a child that they had loved. Judge Heiple was criticized for never meeting with Otakar Kirchner before making his decision; he claimed that the decision was based on Illinois law, and that he had to follow it.

But the overwhelming feeling in Chicagoland was that Heiple and the legal system in general failed to take the child's happiness into account, and that they had therefore committed a crime of omission by following outmoded adoption laws rather than examining the realities of the relationships in front of them.

Photo link here (and thank you to Jonathan Quist for the link!)


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, that photo gives me chills. What a terrible thing to have happened. I do remember that case.

That episode also made adoptive parents everywhere worried about adopting--and they already have such a stressful journey to adoption.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Paul Lamb said...

Perhaps if that judge had showed more empathy, the child would still be with his adoptive parents.

Julia Buckley said...

I agree, Paul. I know that Judge Heiple was a very unpopular person after the decision.

Elizabeth, I have to look this up, but I thought that this case might have spurred some changes in adoption law.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've read about a number of cases like this one, and it always makes me angry and sad. I think adopted children have a right to know who they are and who their biological parents are, but it's wrong to tear a child away from his adoptive family years after the adoption.

Julia Buckley said...

It really is an ethical dilemma in some cases, but in this case I think the real parents might have tried to consider what price had to be paid by everyone other than themselves.

Sandra Parshall said...

Shall we dip into treacherous waters and ask what everyone thinks of the Jackson children's situation? Does Debbie Rowe have a right to decide at this point that she wants her two kids? Will any of the three kids ever know who their biological father is? What will the youngest child be told when he asks about his mother? It's hard to imagine a sadder situation than that one.

Julia Buckley said...

Sad, and confusing. Those seem like some murky waters with much fabrication of facts.

Marilynne said...

When I heard the Judge's decision I was shocked. I thought the natural mother had a limited time to change her mind. And yes, I really feel for the child. He had a good home and then it went away.

Michael's three children will always carry his legacy, and curiosity about why they were. I don't know who could give them a normal home, but I suspect it's not their mother (Debbie).

Julia Buckley said...

Marilynne, I'm with you. It was just shocking.

In regard to Jackson's children, I also get the impression their mother doesn't want them.

It makes me think of little Athena Onassis--so rich, but so isolated.

Julia Buckley said...

And like the Baby Richard case, all of the public spectacle makes it somehow more tragic.

Anonymous said...

You have got to see this. Obama playing on XBox. Funniest video ever.

cgcenet said...

The Baby Richard case should never make people worried about adopting -- unless they intend to adopt by deception. As I understand it, the adoptive parents took advantage of a situation involving the mother who had split from her partner based on a *rumour* of infidelity, and put pressure on her to adopt. Obviously, when the natural parents reconciled, she regretted making that rash decision. It shouldn't be possible to adopt that way.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness this case was decided by law and not popular decree. The birth father had every right to fight for his son. It's a sad case that was, ultimately, decided correctly.

Anonymous said...

How committed was this natural father...he abondoned his family and the son he fought for just 2 years later and now the mother who did not want the son has custody. No the judge should have evaluated the worthiness of the father....he has proved himself to be unworthy and the mother should have been convicted for lying on the adoption papers...and sent to jail.

Anonymous said...

You can not adopt a child unless the biological parents give their legal consent. No legal consent was given by the bio dad. The child should have been returned to his bio father while stillxan infant-not 4 years later. I am an adoptive parent myself and I know bonding occurs right away. It would have been difficult for the Warburtons to return the baby but they had to. This child was simply not available for adoption. This transfer should have taken place when the child was a baby.

Anonymous said...

Did you actually read the court case? Or were you like IL Governor, First Lady Clinton, Barbara Walters and you took Bob Greene's articles at face value? If you read the court case- the adopters and their attorney KNEW that the father wanted the child and recommended that the mom who had been left on her own in this country where she barely understood the language while the biodad went to see his ill grandmother in Slovakia. The mom tried to contact the family to tell them she changed her mind but the went into hiding and changed their phone numbers. When the dad returned and couldn't find a death certificate, he confronted the mom and got the truth. At 57days old, he filed for a dissolution of his son's adoption. It was the Warburton's who dragged it out over 4 yrs and beyond. They required a public transfer rather than many visits to acclimate the child to his new family. The adopters didn't consider Baby Richard's welfare. The court finally did.

Anonymous said...

In the end the child was the one that was lost. His bio father abandoned him. This case was gut wrenching in the fact that the law did not do more to protect the rights of the child. There is much blame to be spread around - but in the end it is now Danny's burden to carry - when he didn't have a say or given access to both families. Heart wrenching and tragic all around. How is Danny today?

Anonymous said...

As one who was intimately involved with this case it had no "happy ending" for anyone involved. Hands were dirty or became dirty throughout the entire 4 year ordeal. In the end, the only winner was the law...right or wrong...the law was enforced. Our court system is not one based on justice but instead is one based upon laws. Injustice will be done. Law can, however, be changed.