exposing the dark side of adoption
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Couple fight for Sam, prepare for loss


The pair who adopted the 4 1/2-year-old as an infant want to spare him trauma if they lose him.


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Mark and Tracy Johnson are the only parents little Sam has ever known.

He has celebrated four birthdays with them. He crawls into bed with them each night before falling asleep. He calls out for them when he's scared.

But the Alabama Supreme Court has decided all that should end.

In a 5-4 decision, the state's justices ruled the Johnsons of Alabama must hand Sam over to his biological father, Christopher Vietri in Florida, a man the child has never met.

The Johnsons plan to fight that decision but, at the same time, are preparing Sam for the emotional trauma that will undoubtedly come from leaving his home, his family and his friends.

"He is the one who will hurt the most from this," Tracy Johnson said Monday from her home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "This is one of the times when he should be No. 1."

It wasn't clear Monday when Sam would move to New Port Richey with Vietri, though it could be a matter of weeks. Both families claim they should be able to keep Sam while the Johnsons continue the legal fight, back at the Alabama high court and then maybe at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the Johnsons ultimately lose their battle, they say they hope to continue a relationship with Sam, their only child, by visiting him in Florida. Vietri, 31, said Monday that he thinks he will not allow that but needs to check with a child psychologist first.

"He knows them. He needs to get to know us," Vietri said. "He's my son. He's still my little boy."

Joseph Samuel Johnson, who became known as "Baby Sam" in newspapers around the nation during the years of legal wrangling, is no longer a baby. He is a tall, thin little boy with a mop of brown hair, a tiny nose and long eyelashes. He attends preschool four times a week, loves to draw and play on computers and counts pirates as one of his favorite things in life.

Sam, who will be 5 in March, has been raised by the Johnsons since he was 3 days old. He knows that he was adopted and that he receives presents from his biological father each year at Christmas, but does not yet know about the court decision.

"We're devastated," said Mrs. Johnson, 37. "We had no idea when we picked him up that this would happen. It was always in the back of my mind that something could happen, but not after this length of time."

The lives of Vietri and the Johnsons became intertwined in March 1996, when Sam's 19-year-old biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, gave him to a Tampa adoption agency at birth and said she didn't know who the father was.

Gawronski and Vietri had lived together in a Palm Harbor apartment, but they split up in mid pregnancy. After Sam was born, Gawronski told Vietri that the baby had been stillborn.

Sam was given to the Johnsons. But Vietri began to suspect his child hadn't died and filed for custody. By the time he unraveled what had happened, the Johnsons had bonded with Sam and refused to give him up.

"Once Sam was placed in our arms, he was our child," Mrs. Johnson said. "We thought -- and we still think -- we were right."

A Pinellas judge awarded custody of Sam to Vietri, but an Alabama judge awarded custody to the Johnsons. Each judge said he had jurisdiction.

Two years ago, the Alabama judge ruled that Vietri had effectively abandoned his son by mistreating Gawronski during her pregnancy -- a charge that Vietri denied -- and that Sam's best interests lay with the Johnsons because they were the boy's "psychological parents."

An appeal court upheld the decision but on Friday, after having the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the Tuscaloosa judge's ruling.

"It's done and it's the right thing," Vietri said. "If they wouldn't have done this, I would have moved out of this country."

Anthony Marchese, the Johnsons' Tampa attorney, said the couple's three-person legal team will file a motion within 10 days asking the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling. He said they also may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case on issues, such as whether Florida should have heard the case instead of Alabama and whether Sam's own rights were represented during the trial.

"It's not about winning or losing," Mrs. Johnson said. "It's about a decision that was made 41/2 years ago."

David Sharp, one of Vietri's lawyers in Clearwater, said he expected the Johnsons to exhaust their legal options but he does not think they will be successful. The Alabama Supreme Court will reconsider the case only if the Johnsons can show the court misinterpreted facts or law, Sharp said. And, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court is reluctant to get involved with family matters.

As the legal fight continues, both sides are planning Sam's move from one home to another.

They agree Sam should not be removed from his home without some kind of transition period. The Johnsons will visit a child psychologist this morning to find out what to tell Sam and how to tell him.

Vietri said he and his family -- his wife, Erika, who married him four years ago, and their 3-year-old son, Nicholas -- will travel to Tuscaloosa for 10 days to two weeks so Sam can get to know him and his family. They already have furniture for him and a blurry, enlarged newspaper picture of him perched in a cherry frame on the shelf overhanging his empty bed.

"Children at that age are very elastic," Sharp said. "He is a healthy, well-balanced child. He will bounce back."

History has shown that to be true. Children, such as "Baby Jessica" who was ripped out of her adoptive parents' hands at age 21/2 in front of a media horde in 1993, have recovered with the help of psychologists. Jessica, now 9-year-old Anna Jacqueline Schmidt, was taken from her adoptive home in Michigan and returned to her birth parents in Iowa.

Although Sam knows something is wrong, the Johnsons say they are trying to pretend everything is normal. The family plans to head to Mississippi today to celebrate Thanksgiving with Sam's adoptive grandparents, his two adoptive great-grandmothers and a host of other relatives.

"We just have to do whatever it takes to survive," Mrs. Johnson said. "I've got to believe that the right thing for Sam is going to happen. He is all that matters."

- Times staff writer Stephen Nohlgren and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

2000 Nov 21