exposing the dark side of adoption
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Catching up with 'Baby Tamia'


CHICAGO — Watching this sunny 6-year-old romp with her dog, it's difficult to envision her at the center of a dark story that dominated headlines for weeks.

"Baby Tamia" — as she became known — is now a bright, chatty, affectionate, 40-pound ball of energy. The peaceful domesticity unfolding at her Hyde Park home is light-years from the noisy custody battle that began in December 2004, when her mother, while in the grip of bipolar disorder and post-partum depression, put the 3-month-old up for adoption.

Carmen McDonald, then 20, traveled alone to Utah, returning without the baby but with a $600 check from an agency she found in a newspaper advertisement. Carmen's mother, Maria McDonald Dorden, relentlessly pursued her granddaughter and sued to get Tamia from the new adoptive parents.

When it was over, Tamia was reunited with her family. The case spurred legislation in Illinois, providing sweeping protections for birth parents and establishing the state as a model for adoption reform.

"This was so much bigger than just Tamia," said Dorden, 50. "We didn't know how much we would change things when we started out. ... We just wanted our baby back."

Today, the baby is a kindergartener at Ray School and is seemingly unscathed by her turbulent beginnings. She lives with her grandparents, who are officially her guardians and whom she calls Mommy and Daddy. Her mother is in Pennsylvania, in treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

Tamia is unaware that her case generated hundreds of newspaper stories, TV reports and blog entries; that she amassed a 222-page case file with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; or that for years after being thrust in the limelight, strangers would call her grandmother a hero and plead for help in retrieving their own lost babies.

"I was just a parent standing by my child," explained Dorden.

If this were a Lifetime cable channel movie, Carmen McDonald also would be transformed. Realizing how close she came to losing her daughter, she would have embraced motherhood. But mental illness rarely follows such a tidy narrative, and while Tamia has thrived, her mother has struggled.

McDonald, now 27, has had several psychiatric hospitalizations, has blown off court-ordered therapy and had frequent contact with police, records show.

Meanwhile, DCFS assessments of the grandparents, who acknowledge they had their own involvement with drugs in their teens and 20s, were glowing when the agency closed the case in December 2005.

"Beautiful little girl, beautiful family," said Kim Barnes, Cook County assistant public guardian and Tamia's attorney, who checked in with the Dordens in February. "This is when the system really works."

In 2006, the Dordens left Riverdale for far southwest suburban Plano to escape notoriety from the case, but also to put some distance between them and McDonald's troubles.

"She was so used to us rescuing her, we just had to take a step back," her mother said.

Tamia also helped them establish some boundaries. "We couldn't go pick up Carmen ... when she was intoxicated, because I wasn't going to drag a 3-year-old out in the middle of the night. Being so far away made that a lot easier."

The family had been grappling with the tragic lows and euphoric highs of bipolar disorder since McDonald was diagnosed at age 14. Sometimes, she would have long periods of stability; then the mood would inexplicably shift. And in the days leading up to her Utah odyssey, unease gathered like storm clouds.

"I knew she was going to do something with that baby," said McDonald's stepfather, John Dorden, 53, who met Maria in 1999 at Chicago's Loretto Hospital, where both were employed as substance abuse counselors. The couple married in 2006.

McDonald flew to Salt Lake City with infant Tamia in December 2004, her ticket paid for by A Cherished Child, a for-profit agency in Utah that advertised in Illinois. McDonald found herself in a motel room, relinquishment agreement in hand. When she tried to back out, she said, she was threatened, including being stranded without airfare home, according to court records.

When McDonald returned, she said Tamia was in Ohio with her father. When the real story tumbled out, the Dordens hired attorneys and sought to reverse the adoption in a lawsuit experts said they had little chance of winning.

McDonald was free to place her baby anywhere, the experts said. In fact, Tamia was already in the home of Lenna Habbeshaw and Steven Kusaba, then 45 and 50, respectively.

The prospective parents passed all the background checks, reports the Utah Department of Human Services. But in the midst of the explosive custody battle, they were arrested for drug possession, which derailed the adoption. They pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

On March 23, 2005, Cook County Judge Michael J. Murphy ruled the Utah agency mishandled the necessary paperwork for adoption in Illinois. One day later, McDonald picked up her daughter at O'Hare, calling it "the best moment in my life."

A Cherished Child is now closed. The agency's former director could not be reached, but she no longer works in child welfare, Utah authorities said.

The Illinois Adoption Reform Act was signed into law in August 2005, requiring adoption agencies to be licensed and tax-exempt, taking commerce out of the equation.

With eight children between them, ranging in age from 16 to 32, the Dordens were not looking to start parenthood all over again in their 50s. This was their time for reading, travel and quiet companionship, not Hannah Montana, school events and birthday parties.

"We're so tired," said John Dorden. "But what can you do? Life presents us with challenges."

"Tamia knows her mother is sick and that she's trying to get better," Maria Dorden said. "When she's older, we'll explain more, but we don't keep secrets. It's important that Tamia doesn't think that Carmen didn't want her. ... It's just that she can't care for her right now."

2011 Apr 9