Baby Tamia will return to Illinois

Relates to:
Date: 2005-03-24

Judge's ruling grants mother custody of 6-month-old, expected back home today

Jonathan Lipman
Daily Southtown

Baby Tamia is coming home.

The 6-month-old's mother, Carmen McDonald, cried as she heard the ruling in court Wednesday. The judge ordered the baby returned from Utah to Illinois, given to child welfare authorities, and turned over to Carmen and her mother, Maria McDonald.

"I'm grateful, so grateful to get a second chance," Carmen McDonald said minutes after the ruling. "I'm just ready to bond with my daughter again."

Officials with the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services will fly to Utah today to pick up the baby, who is in Utah state custody after the arrests last week of her would-be adoptive parents on drug charges.

A Utah court is expected to release the baby to Illinois officials after a noon hearing today.

Cook County Presiding Judge Michael Murphy said the adoption was illegally rushed by the Utah agency handling it. He ordered Illinois DCFS to take custody of the baby immediately.

DCFS agreed to grant temporary custody to Maria McDonald after its court-ordered report found some lingering concerns with Carmen McDonald's mental health, according to attorneys who reviewed the sealed report.

The 20-year-old, who had been living in Harvey with her sister, recently moved into Maria McDonald's home in Chicago's Riverdale community.

Permanent custody will be resolved later with the agency, court and the Cook County public guardian's office, said DCFS general counsel Elizabeth Yore.

McDonald's attorneys said all sides agreed giving Maria McDonald custody was the fastest way to reunite the family.

"(Tamia and I) are going to do what me and her always did, and that's just play," Carmen McDonald said. "We've got a lot to do, but now we have a lifetime to do it."

The case is not over for A Cherished Child, the Utah agency that Murphy ruled against. Assistant Illinois Attorney General Barbara Greenspan said she is seeking an injunction to prevent the agency from ever doing business in the state of Illinois again.

After the hearing, Maria McDonald promised Greenspan that she would testify against the agency anytime.

"I have to feel that this is bigger than me and bigger than Tamia," said the 43-year-old grandmother, who recruited lawyers and local clergy to the case. "We have to stop these agencies from coming over and taking our children."

McDonald's attorney, Robert Fioretti, promised to "put them out of business however we can."

Murphy delivered his ruling to a courtroom overflowing with lawyers for state agencies, supporters of McDonald and reporters.

Murphy even had a letter from Gov. Rod Blagojevich urging the judge to resolve the case.

Members of McDonald's Sweet Holy Spirit Church prayed outside the courtroom doors.

Murphy ruled last week the Utah-based adoption agency moved too fast and did not properly notify state officials of the adoption. The agency bought McDonald a ticket, flew her to Utah, had her sign away her parental rights in a motel room and flew her back within 24 hours.

Murphy said he rejected arguments from A Cherished Child that Illinois and Utah adoption authorities said it was OK to bring Tamia to Utah first and file paperwork later.

"This practice is severely criticized by this court," Murphy said.

He also addressed remarks "to all adoptees and adoptive parents," telling them he was sensitive to fears that his ruling might mean any adoption could be reversed if the birth mother changed her mind.

"(Adoptive parents) would ask me, 'Can there ever be closure?' " Murphy said. "But this case is not about changing your mind. ... It's about following the law, a law many people never knew existed."

A Cherished Child attorney Bruce Wall said the state law at issue in the case, the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, is confusing. He said A Cherished Child director Ruby Johnston never meant to break it.

"Any violation made of the law was unintentional and due to (advice given) by authorities in Utah," Wall said.

The agency's only concern in court Wednesday was that the judge decide what was best for Tamia, Wall said, and he was satisfied that occurred.

The couple who raised Tamia for three months in Salt Lake City said their concern was the same.

"I think that Cherished Child has done very well despite what everyone's written about them, and they should be allowed to decide (what happens to Tamia)," Stephen Kusaba said Wednesday from his Utah home.

Kusaba declined to speak about the arrests of him and his wife, Lenna Habbeshaw, on drug possession charges. Utah child-protection authorities filed abuse and neglect charges and took emergency custody of Tamia.

The baby is being kept in a temporary shelter, said Assistant Utah Attorney General Carolyn Nichols on Wednesday.

"I'd do anything to (get Tamia back), but I think circumstances have ruled that out," Kusaba said. "If there was any God on the Earth, that would be the right thing to happen."

Tamia was 3 months old when she and her mother flew to Utah on a ticket bought by A Cherished Child.

In Utah, Carmen McDonald was running a 102-degree fever, suffering severe post-partum depression and crying uncontrollably, her attorneys say. When she told the agency she changed her mind on the adoption, the agency's director allegedly threatened to leave her stranded in Utah.

Attorneys for A Cherished Child dispute that McDonald was mentally ill and say she was never coerced into signing the adoption forms. Kusaba said he never had any doubt that McDonald wanted to give up her baby.

The case has snowballed into a statewide debate on the for-profit adoption industry. Blagojevich's letter to Murphy said he hoped Tamia was "returned expeditiously" to Illinois and that he was "personally distressed" by Murphy's finding that state law was broken.

The governor's office, along with DCFS and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is backing a bill in Springfield to toughen adoption law and force anyone advertising adoption services in Illinois to be licensed in Illinois.

McDonald first got in touch with the agency through an ad in a Chicago newspaper.

After proceedings Wednesday, Carmen McDonald said she wants to meet Tamia at the airport when DCFS officials bring her back.

"Yes, I will be at the airport. ... You can't keep me from going," she said.

Her mother, who has raised money and pushed the legal fight on her daughter's behalf for more than three months, was more cautious.

"We can't panic; we've got to see if there are things we need, like a car seat, T-shirts, Pampers. Can I buy Pampers? Oh, and toys!" Maria McDonald said. "We have a lot of work still to do."

Jonathan Lipman may be reached at jlipman@dailysouthtown.com or (312) 782-1286.

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