exposing the dark side of adoption
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Completing the family portrait THE VIETRI STORY


Spend time in Christopher Vietri's home and you'll see a father not reluctant to show his affection.


NEW PORT RICHEY -- He grew up in the Bronx under the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, dropped out of high school to work construction and never strayed far from his working-class Italian roots.

Rockyesque phrases like "yous guys" and "most beautifulest child" pepper his speech with regularity. His discipline style is simplistic and direct. ("If you're not a good boy, Santa Claus is not coming to this house.")

If good parenting hinged on book-learning and nuance, Christopher Vietri should throw in the towel.

But spend time in his house and one thing jumps out: Vietri and his family are connoisseurs of affection.

Vietri, 31, reaches for his wife, Erika, 28, when he thinks no one is looking, saying, "Give me some loving."

She slides onto his lap like it's a comfortable old chair.

Vietri's mother, Irene, also known as Meemaw, chastises her grandson, Nicholas, 3, with mock exasperation: "You're going to be the death of me!"

Beaming, bubbly Nicky bounces from one adult to the other, seeking and receiving kind words, hugs and kisses. He giggles one moment, pouts and sasses the next, but never exhibits the sad, sullen look of a badly raised child.

Barring last-minute shifts in the Alabama courts, this is the home that will greet 4-year-old Joseph Samuel Johnson next month when he leaves the only parents he's ever known and grafts onto a family that knows him only from assumptions of the heart.

Sam's adoptive parents, Tuscaloosa residents Mark and Tracy Johnson, and his biological father, Vietri, began battling for custody just months after his birth, hence his media moniker, "Baby Sam."

Sam's biological mother, who was Vietri's former girlfriend, told him their child had died at birth. In reality, she gave their baby to a Tampa adoption agency and told them she didn't know who the father was. The agency paid her support money, made little effort to find the father and charged the Johnsons $17,400 for a healthy 3-day-old.

When Sam was about 11 weeks old, the Johnsons discovered that Vietri wanted his baby back, but decided to fight. Courts in Florida and Alabama took more than four years to unsnarl the mess, which now brings Sam and the Vietri family to the brink of this difficult merger.

Vietri acknowledges that Sam faces heartache during what Vietri calls an "adjustment period." He says he'll seek professional counseling on how to proceed.

But mostly, he expresses undiluted confidence that bloodlines, his own deep feelings and his family's bonds will heal Sam's wounds.

"I foresee him probably at night crying for Mommy and Daddy. He'll be yelling at me, "You're not my daddy,' " Vietri said. "I am going to explain to him that, "I am your daddy.' "

The cost of parent-child splits

Erika Vietri also likes Sam's chances. But she knows firsthand how parent-child splits always carry a cost.

Before she met Vietri, she divorced her first husband and gave him custody of their son, Alec, then 31/2. Her husband was a college student and stay-at-home dad, while she worked to support them. She gave up custody because the father was the primary caretaker.

When the father and Alec moved to Tennessee, she was reduced to summer visits and weekly phone calls. Her ex-husband married a child psychologist and fathered another child. Erika said she misses Alec but knows he is happy and doing well in school. All the adults and all the children in both families "get along real well," she said.

"People question me, and say, "Why did I give up my son? I'm a mother.' But that's what was best for him and he's still in my life."

Her ex-husband, Mike Orozco, confirmed this account.

Monday through Wednesday, Erika Vietri works 13-hour shifts as a cook in the Countryside nursing home where her father-in-law, Joseph Vietri, lives with Alzheimer's disease.

On those days, Christopher Vietri dresses and feeds Nicky, takes him to day care, picks him up at 5 p.m. and feeds him dinner while waiting for Erika to come home. If he can't make it, Irene Vietri drives up from Palm Harbor to fill in.

On Thursday and Friday, Erika stays at home with Nicky. When Sam comes, she said, she plans to take a leave of absence for several months so she can monitor the boys at home.

"It's going to take a lot of time, caring and nurturing," she said. "I know Nicky will help. They'll do a lot of playing."

Nicky knows that something is afoot with this missing brother. "Is Sam here?" he asked repeatedly as reporters and photographers trooped through the house. "Is he in your car?"

The two-bedroom, two-bath, concrete block home seems modest, orderly and child-friendly.

The boys' bedroom contains two single beds, covered with stuffed animals and green A Bug's Life comforters. Shelves hold framed pictures of Nicky, mostly glossy and professional, and two photos of Sam: An infant snapshot the Johnsons sent in a 1996 letter pleading Vietri to give up; and a St. Petersburg Times photograph of Sam at 10 months, when the Johnsons invited reporters into their home to hear their story.

Both Vietri cars and Irene Vietri's car have their own car seats for Nicky. Vestiges of tobacco permeate the Vietri garage because Christopher and Irene always retreat there to indulge their habit, keeping smoke out of the main house.

Living room, dining room, family room and kitchen blend into a single racetrack for Nicky's red Radio Flyer wagon. At one point, two neighbor boys, 9 and 5, tumble through the door and vanish with Nicky into the bedroom. They yell, wrestle, pull each other in the wagon and give each other piggyback rides.

After they leave, Nicky fiddles with toys on a green area rug in the living room, his designated play area. A swing-set, slide and diminutive basketball hoop await him in a fenced-in backyard.

During dinner, Nicky tests the boundaries of parental control. He bites the tip off a cheese pizze slice, puts it on his plate, glances impishly at his parents and slowly slides another slice from the box.

"No, Nicky, one at a time," says his dad.

"No, no," Nicky responds, grinning and slapping his father playfully on the arm.

"Stop it," Chris says, but Nicky keeps slapping him.

Erika quietly intervenes: "Do you want me to put you on the bed and have time out?" Erika says.

Nicky shakes his head and sits back in the chair.

"Say you're sorry," Chris tells his son, trying in vain to consolidate the upper hand.

"Sorrrrry!" Nicky retorts sarcastically, dragging the word out as long as possible.

Everyone laughs. A few seconds later, Nicky climbs into his grandmother's lap and plays finger games.

Tensions with the Johnsons

In January, Christopher Vietri and a partner started a company that links computerized voice and data networks for businesses and residences.

At first, they found work all over the state, which boosted the couple's bank account, he said. He bought Erika a yellow 2001 Jeep Wrangler. The end of the year has brought a seasonal dropoff, money is tight and the Vietris wonder how they'll pay for the week or so they want to spend in Alabama while getting to know Sam.

"Why does it always have to be about money?" Vietri said. "This couldn't have come at a worse time."

To finance the five-year legal fight, Vietri sold an old 17-foot fishing boat, his mother sold her jewelry and remortgaged her house. A 9-year-old cousin of Sam's in New York donated his $2,500 college fund. Vietri said they still owe about $200,000 to lawyers in both states.

They hope to cover those bills by winning a Hillsborough negligence lawsuit against Adoption By Choice, which gave Sam away without finding Vietri and later filed false court documents. The Johnson also sued ABC in federal court.

Plenty of tension remains between the Vietris and Johnsons, which bodes poorly for Sam's chances for a smooth handoff.

The Johnsons continue to allege that Vietri abused and abandoned Sam's biological mother during her pregnancy, a charge that originated with the mother's often-conflicting stories and later became part of the court order when the Johnsons adopted Sam.

Vietri has always denied those charges, and Erika says he has never raised a hand to her. Last week, their lawyer counterpunched by accusing the Johnsons of deliberately causing a protracted court fight so Sam would grow so old that nobody would want to send him back.

As always, Vietri expresses contradictory sentiments about the Johnsons. One moment he'll angrily accuse them of kidnaping his son or securing "a black-market baby." Then, he'll call them nice people and thank them for raising Sam into a happy boy.

"I hope they don't hate me," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm just a parent who loves his child. I didn't agree to give him up. I'll never give up on him. He's my blood."

Sam's biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, reportedly is living in the Tampa Bay area, but could not be reached for comment.

2000 Nov 26