exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

A child, a ruling, a time of tears


The adoptive parents of "Baby Sam'' do what they have dreaded: Expose him to the media glare.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- More than anything, Tuesday's gathering felt like a funeral. There was plenty of sniffling, hugging, even the occasional burst of laughter from those remembering the good times.

But they weren't mourning a death. This was a different kind of loss altogether.

Surrounded by dozens of friends, co-workers and supportive strangers, Sam Johnson's adoptive parents cried as they talked about the Alabama Supreme Court's decision to send the boy to his biological father in Florida after more than four years in their care.

"There was just no consideration given to Sam and what this would do to Sam," Mark Johnson said. "He doesn't understand court decisions. He doesn't understand biology. We're all he knows."

Mark and Tracy Johnson did Tuesday what they said they had hoped never to do: parade their son in front of a sea of cameras.

Sam arrived with his maternal adoptive grandparents at the close of the news conference held at a friend's house. Hordes of reporters lunged at the car, but Tracy Johnson screamed for them to back off until he got out. Then, Mark Johnson held Sam in his arms in the front yard while the cameras flashed. Sam, oblivious to the reason for the gathering, stared timidly from one face to another before turning his head away.

The Johnsons wanted to show people that Sam, who turns 5 in March, is no longer "Baby Sam" as he was described in news stories years ago when the legal fighting began between the Johnsons and biological father Christopher Vietri, who has been trying to claim the boy since he was 10 weeks old.

Sam is now a sandy-haired boy with a personality, friends and identity all his own. He even has a new nickname: Sambo.

Sam doesn't know yet that he must go to live with Vietri and his family -- Vietri's wife, Erika, who married him four years ago, and their 3-year-old son, Nicholas -- in New Port Richey by late December. He has never met his biological father, although the Johnsons have told Sam about him.

"This can't happen," said Tonya Davis, a tearful friend who attended the news conference and stood amid signs asking that Sam stay in Alabama. "This just can't happen."

The Johnsons plan to file a motion in the coming weeks asking the state's Supreme Court to reconsider its 5-4 decision from last Friday. Five of the nine justices will leave office in January, though, which could have a huge impact on the case.

Both the Johnsons and Vietri expect the court to allow Sam to stay in Alabama while it deliberates whether to reconsider the case. If the Johnsons lose again, they will have a month to give Sam to Vietri. They said they probably would appeal further -- to the U.S. Supreme Court -- but only if Sam can stay with them while the legal wrangling continued.

"We haven't given up," Mark Johnson, 36, said. "We'll fight and appeal as long as he can stay with us in our home."

If Sam can't stay with them during the appeals, the Johnsons say it might be time to say goodbye to their only child. They don't want Sam to be dragged back and forth between houses.

"We can't do a lot to prepare him for this," Tracy Johnson, 37, said. "There's no way to prevent Sam from being hurt."

The Johnsons spent more than an hour Tuesday morning with a child psychologist to try to find out how to explain to Sam that he might have to leave. They hope Sam has a long transition period but Vietri said he wants to spend only a couple of weeks in Alabama before taking Sam to Florida.

"It's like a death of an entire family," said Mary Stephens, a child advocate with the non-profit group, Hear My Voice, who has worked with the Johnsons for years. "The trauma is enormous."

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.

A Pinellas judge awarded custody of Sam to Vietri but an Alabama judge awarded custody to the Johnsons.

Two years ago, the Alabama judge ruled that Vietri had effectively abandoned his son by mistreating Gawronski during her pregnancy -- a charge Vietri denies -- and that Sam's best interests lay with the Johnsons because they were the boy's "psychological parents." An appeals court upheld the decision but on Friday, after having the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled for Vietri.

In the aftermath of the decision, the Johnsons and Vietri -- who have never spoken -- continued to blame each other for Sam's predicament as they have for years. Vietri plans his own news conference at 10 a.m. today at his house to explain his side.

Vietri, 31, said this week the Johnsons could have prevented this situation by giving Sam back at age 10 weeks when they first found out he wanted the child.

"We are where we are today because of a terrible decision the Johnsons made," said Lawrence Liebling, Vietri's Clearwater attorney. "The decision to fight in court was their decision."

But the Johnsons said Vietri was the one who appealed the Tuscaloosa judge's decision more than two years ago. They also say they have repeatedly tried to negotiate with Vietri, even agreeing to allow him to visit and be apart of Sam's life if they could retain custody. Liebling, however, denies that and said the Johnsons have never allowed Vietri to see or talk to his son.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

2002 Nov 22