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!)