Tamia, mother will be reunited

Relates to:
Date: 2005-03-24

Ruling: The child will be returned to Chicago today; her grandmother could get official custody; Tamia returns today to birth mom

Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

Tamia Hemphill, aka "Baby Tamia," has spent half her six-month life bouncing between three families and at least as many homes.

Flown from Chicago to Salt Lake City in December and surrendered for adoption in a motel room by her 20-year-old mentally ill mother, the girl was taken from the family who welcomed her into this world. Last week, she was taken from her new adoptive parents, a middle-aged Salt Lake City couple who were arrested on drug charges, and placed with a Utah foster family.

Today, in compliance with an Illinois judge's order, that state's child welfare officials will fly her to Chicago to be reunited with her biological mother and maternal grandmother.

Such is the plight of children caught up in bitter custody disputes. Her story, widely publicized around the country, is forcing reform of Illinois adoption laws.

But more important, Tamia Hemphill has found a permanent home.

"All that's on the minds of this mother and grandmother is receiving and hugging that baby," said Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) spokeswoman Diane Jackson. "We don't know [which] will be awarded official custody."

Cook County Circuit Judge Michael J. Murphy ordered Midvale-based A Cherished Child Adoption Agency to hand over Tamia to the Illinois DCFS, leaving it up to the agency to award permanent custody. But he emphasized that he believed returning the child to her biological mother is in her best interests.

"The child has been in the custody of the natural mother and the adoptive parents for approximately equal amounts of time. The court is sensitive to the possibility that removing the child back to Illinois at a later age would be devastating. But that is not the situation in this case," Murphy said.

The birth mother, Carmen McDonald, surrendered the baby in December but later sued, alleging she was coerced. Suffering from post-partum depression, McDonald said the agency took advantage of her financial and emotional vulnerability.

According to the Associated Press, McDonald smiled and began weeping softly as Murphy ruled. Her eyes were still damp as she spoke to reporters during a 10-minute recess in the proceedings.

"I am so relieved," she said. "I ain't felt this good in a long time. I am ready to bond with my child."

About a dozen McDonald supporters held hands and prayed just outside the courtroom. Many broke into applause when they heard the decision.

Citing state supreme court decisions in Montana and Kansas, Judge Murphy ruled A Cherished Child violated interstate adoption rules by notifying Illinois and Utah officials of the adoption after, rather than before, it transferred the baby.

Such retroactive approval may be common practice. But Murphy said the interstate compact, signed by all 50 states, should be "strictly complied with and enforced."

"To do otherwise would be to trivialize and frustrate the purpose of the compact, essentially rendering it meaningless," Murphy said. "A Cherished Child and [its director] Ruby Johnston are in the business of adoptions. As such, they either knew or should have known that they were required to follow the requirements."

McDonald's Chicago attorney, Robert Fioretti, says he plans to have Tamia on a plane today escorted by two Illinois caseworkers.

Utah officials have agreed to comply with the Illinois court order.

"The court there that has jurisdiction has ordered that the child goes back, so the child is going back," said Carolyn Nichols, an assistant Utah attorney general.

Utah 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly Hornak, who on Tuesday placed the baby in the temporary custody of Utah's child welfare system, has given attorneys until noon today to file any objections. If there are none, she will cancel further hearings.

Lawyers for A Cherished Child aren't objecting.

"We're pleased with the judge's ruling and we will honor and facilitate as best we can the return of the child to Illinois. It's our client's goal to place children where they'll be happy, productive human beings, so that's what we want for her," said the agency's attorney, Richard Van Wagoner. He couldn't say whether the adoption agency was reimbursing the prospective adoptive parents the reported $14,000 to $15,000 they paid to adopt Baby Tamia.

The Utah couple, Lenna Carol Habbeshaw, 45, and Steven Kusaba, 50, were arrested March 17 on suspicion of possession of cocaine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia and child endangerment.

The couple declined to comment on the arrest Wednesday. But Les England, the Park City attorney who handled the adoption for them, said their part in the custody dispute ended when A Cherished Child revoked the adoption following their arrest.

A Cherished Child isn't off the hook, however. McDonald's attorneys are vowing to sue the agency for damages.

Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is calling upon lawmakers in that state to pass proposed reform legislation to de-commercialize the adoption industry.

The bill would prohibit agencies such as A Cherished Child to advertise in Illinois unless they obtain a license from the state.

Saying he was "distressed" by the handling of Baby Tamia's adoption, Blagojevich issued a statement Wednesday supporting the bill.

"Birth parents are extremely vulnerable during the adoption process and need to be protected," he said.


How the story unfolded

* Dec. 3 -- Illinois mother Carmen McDonald flies to Salt Lake City and surrenders Baby Tamia the next day to Midvale-based A Cherished Child Adoption Agency.

* Jan. 5 -- After being found wandering the streets of New Orleans and being institutionalized, McDonald, with the help of her mother, Maria McDonald, files a lawsuit in Illinois seeking to get the baby back.

* March 17 -- The prospective Utah adoptive parents, Lenna Habbeshaw and Stephen Kusaba, are arrested for possession of illegal drugs, and Baby Tamia is placed in a Utah foster home.

* Tuesday -- A Cherished Child revokes the adoption and a juvenile court judge orders the baby to remain in Utah custody pending the outcome of the Illinois lawsuit.

* Wednesday -- An Illinois judge orders the baby returned to the Illinois child welfare system.

What's next

* Today -- Baby Tamia, accompanied by Illinois child welfare officials, will board a flight to Chicago, where she will be returned to her biological mother and maternal grandmother.


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