exposing the dark side of adoption
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Deal ends struggle for Baby Sam


The couple who adopted the 5-year-old as a infant will keep him. The father who wanted the child back can visit.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer

The couple who adopted the 5-year-old as a infant will keep him. The father who wanted the child back can visit.

The parents look at their 5-year-old boy and wonder how much he understands. Is he just a typical kid when he clings to them at night? Is it unusual for him to ask repeatedly at a friend's house when his "mommy" will come to pick him up?

"Baby Sam" isn't a baby anymore. He's a bright boy learning his ABCs. And the only people he has ever called mommy and daddy know he is old enough to grapple with insecurity.

Now the custody battle that clouded Joseph Samuel "Sam" Johnson's future is over.

The two families vying for custody of Sam have signed an agreement that keeps the boy with Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., the couple who sought his adoption and have raised Sam since his infancy. The agreement, approved by an Alabama judge on Friday, allows Sam's biological father, Chris Vietri, supervised visitation four times a year.

Vietri agreed to pay the Johnsons $200 a month in child support, a third of all health costs not covered by their insurance, and some of Sam's eventual college expenses.

The agreement, reached on Feb. 26, ends a legal battle that altered the face of adoption in Florida and helped propel state legislators to tighten laws on adoption. The case gained national attention and fueled debate on the rights of biological parents.

"It's all just sinking in," said Tracy Johnson, 39, in a telephone interview. "We're happy to finally have the closure. Now the adults really have to make the effort to make it work."

Vietri, 32, a former New Port Richey resident who moved to the New York area, declined to comment. But his mother, Irene Vietri, who lives in Palm Harbor, said, "Half a loaf is better than none. . . . He'll get to see him."

After years of sometimes-bitter disagreement, the two sides settled the case after months of negotiation and before yet another custody hearing that Vietri apparently feared losing.

"The agreement was really the best we could do at this point," said Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's Birmingham, Ala., attorney. "The down side was another four or five years of litigation to no avail."

The case has a complex legal history that began in 1996 when Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, signed newborn Sam over to an adoption agency in Tampa and said she didn't know the father's identity.

Gawronski and Vietri broke up during her pregnancy, and she told Vietri the baby died at birth. Vietri suspected his child was alive and filed for custody.

A Tuscaloosa Circuit Court judge sided with the Johnsons in 1998, deciding they could keep Sam. But the state's Supreme Court overturned the decision in November 2000, saying that Vietri still had parental rights. The court said Sam should live with Vietri.

But a month later, the high court backtracked, and ordered mediation. In April 2001, after mediation failed, the Alabama Supreme Court returned the case to the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court. The judge, Phillip Lisenby, told both sides in October to try to settle.

"There's nothing quite normal about this case," Patton said. "(Vietri's) hope is that the two sides will now be able to build some substantial level of trust."

Vietri hopes to develop a father-son relationship with Sam, whom he has met four times, Patton said.

The agreement imposes strict limits on all new visits. In the beginning, Vietri's four annual visits with Sam will come at the office of a child psychologist.

The Johnsons must receive at least three weeks' notice. Vietri will get at least four hours with the child over a two-day period.

But the agreement says that visitation may increase over time, if the psychologist sees that both Vietri and Sam are having no problems together. Eventually, visits outside the psychologist's offices may be allowed.

The agreement also allows Vietri to telephone or e-mail Sam on special occasions, such as Father's Day.

Mark Johnson, 37, said Vietri will have a chance to get to know Sam.

"If he ever wants to expand the relationship, that will be his option," said Johnson, a construction supervisor. "The main thing is (that) Sam's going to stay with us and get to grow up in our house."

The agreement contained no provisions for the biological mother, who has steadfastly supported the Johnsons. But the judge ordered her to pay $207 a month in child support.

"We anticipate things going smoothly," Mrs. Johnson said. "We owe it to him to be as congenial and open as we can."

After Chris Vietri sued for custody in April 1996, the case prodded lawmakers into action.

"It clearly got the Legislature moving," said Brant Bailey, a St. Petersburg lawyer whose family law practice includes adoptions. "They tried to make the adoption process as clean as possible to give the adoptive child the best start possible."

But the changes also have made adoptions more complex, time-consuming and expensive, she said.

The Johnsons said they have no plans to pursue a legal adoption of Sam. Though they now have permanent custody, he has not been their adopted child since the Supreme Court ruling in November 2000.

But Mark Johnson, speaking of the adoption, said, "That's just a piece of paper."

"From Sam's point of view, nothing changes," said the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, Anthony Marchese. "To him, they are his parents."

For Sam, the decision comes as an early birthday gift: He turns 6 a week from today.

-- Information from Times reporter Collins Conner and the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News was used in this report.

High profile custody cases+

Besides Baby Sam, there have been several other high-profile child custody cases in recent years. Among them:

In 1986, Mary Beth Whitehead agrees to be a surrogate for a childless couple in exchange for $10,000. After giving birth, she decides she wants to keep the baby, known as Baby M., and moves to Pasco County. After a two-year legal battle, the New Jersey Supreme Court rules surrogacy contracts illegal, but grants custody to the couple and gives Whitehead visitation rights.

A Michigan couple adopts Baby Jessica in 1991, after the biological mother gives the girl up for adoption. Two weeks later, the mother changes her mind and tells the father about his child. The supreme courts in Iowa and Michigan award custody to the biological parents in 1993. Both couples divorce several years later.

The Broward County biological parents of Baby Emily break up before she is born, and the mother gives her up for adoption in 1992. The baby's biological father goes to court to demand custody, saying he has not given consent for the adoption. In 1995, the Florida Supreme Court rules against him, saying unmarried men who fail to give emotional support to women pregnant with their children forfeit any right to challenge adoptions.

-- Sources: Times files and Times wires

Key dates in Baby Sam case

MARCH 1996 -- Baby Sam is born on the 19th, and mother Natasha Gawronski tells an adoption agency she doesn't know who the father is. She tells Christopher Vietri, the estranged boyfriend who fathered the child, that the child has died. In fact, she gives him up for adoption. Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa, Ala., drive to Tampa on March 20th and sign papers to adopt the infant.

APRIL 1996 -- Vietri files a paternity suit in Pinellas Circuit Court, seeking custody of Sam.

JUNE 1996 -- Gawronski tells a Pasco-Pinellas circuit judge that she gave the boy to an agency called Adoption By Choice, which gave the boy to the Johnsons.

DECEMBER 1996 -- A Pinellas circuit judge grants Vietri temporary custody.

APRIL 1997 -- Tuscaloosa Circuit Judge Philip Lisenby rules that the Johnsons should have temporary custody and orders an adoption hearing in Tuscaloosa.

APRIL 1998 -- Lisenby rules that the Johnsons should keep Sam, calling them the boy's "psychological parents." He rules that the Johnsons presented convincing evidence that Vietri abused Natasha Gawronski during her pregnancy and never planned to care for the child.

FEBRUARY 1999 -- The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, in a 4-1 decision, upholds Lisenby's ruling.

NOVEMBER 2000 -- The Alabama Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reverses the April 1998 ruling and orders the Johnsons to return the boy to Vietri.

DECEMBER 2000 -- In a highly unusual move, the Alabama Supreme Court, with several new justices, steps away from its initial ruling and orders both sides to undergo mediation.

FEBRUARY 2001 -- Christopher Vietri sees his son for the first time.

MARCH 2001 -- A mediator announces that talks between the Johnsons and Vietri have collapsed. Erika Vietri, Christopher Vietri's wife, later says that her husband rejected a compromise that would have allowed the Johnsons to keep Sam. The Alabama Supreme Court is forced to decide again who will raise the boy.

APRIL 2001 -- The Alabama Supreme Court upholds its November 2000 decision, which held that Vietri still had parental rights. The high court returns the case to the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court.

AUGUST 2001 -- Erika Vietri leaves Christopher Vietri and accuses him of slapping her face, picking her up by the neck, shoving her into walls, choking her and threatening to slit her throat. Christopher Vietri denies the allegations. Erika Vietri announces that she now supports the Johnsons' campaign for custody of Sam.

SEPTEMBER 2001 -- Erika Vietri announces that she and Christopher Vietri are attempting a reconciliation.

OCTOBER 2001 -- Tuscaloosa Circuit Judge Lisenby orders the two families to return to mediation.

JANUARY 2002 -- Pasco County prosecutors charge Christopher Vietri with domestic battery, for allegedly throwing a telephone at his wife in August 2001. The Johnsons and the Vietris, meanwhile, have turned over mediation to their lawyers.

MARCH 2002 -- Lawyers announce an agreement in which the Johnsons keep Sam, and Christopher Vietri get visitation rights but must pay child support.

2002 Mar 12