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


Sam joined the family when he was just 3 days old. Nearly five years later, they're fighting to keep him.


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Four-year-old Sam Johnson playfully hides from his adoptive parents under the ottoman in the living room, leaving only his sock-clad feet sticking out.

A few minutes later, he squeezes onto a chair behind his dad and climbs up on his shoulders. Then, he's off again -- running upstairs to his tidy bedroom to grab his black pirate hat and eye patch.

"Look at me, Mommy!" he calls, grabbing her arm.

Sam doesn't know it yet, but in a matter of weeks he likely will have to adjust to a new home, family, friends. Right now, though, he's a bundle of energy, making use of some time his parents have off from work.

Mark and Tracy Johnson learned a few days earlier that the Alabama Supreme Court said they must hand over Sam to his biological father, Christopher Vietri of New Port Richey, probably before Christmas. They took time off from work to fight the court ruling and, at the same time, prepare Sam for the emotional trauma he'll face.

They have just come from an appointment with a child psychologist, seeking guidance on how to tell Sam he must leave the only home he has ever known and live with a man he has never met.

Sam won't understand judges and court decisions, the psychologist told them. But he should be able to relate to dolls that represent him and his two sets of parents, he said.

The Johnsons are told to show Sam that the child doll has been living with one set of parents but soon will live with a second set. Then, they must somehow explain to him that the child may not be able to see the first parents again -- at least not for a long time.

"We have a 41/2-year-old son that may lose the only family he's ever known," Tracy Johnson said. "We need to get him thinking of what it might be like. It's like the death of everyone he knows."

Sam was just 11 weeks old when the tug of war between his adoptive parents and his birth father began. He will turn 5 in March, and the Johnsons are desperate to show the world how much he has grown since the headlines nicknamed him "Baby Sam."

Sambo, as his dad calls him, speaks with a Southern twang and addresses adults as "ma'am" and "sir." He can write his own name as well as the names of his parents. He prays each morning.

The Johnsons now worry that Sam will learn about the court decision from other children before they can tell him. Some older kids he saw while playing outside called him "Baby Sam" -- to which he replied, "I'm not a baby." When he asked Tracy Johnson why kids said he was on TV, she just told him he was a special boy.

"We're by no means perfect parents but love him more than life itself," said a tearful Tracy Johnson with her husband's arm around her shoulder. "No amount of miles will take away that this man is "Daddy' and I'm "Mommy.' "

'He's our boy, our child'

Tracy Johnson got the call in March 1996. A healthy baby weighing 6 pounds, 12 ounces had been born in Florida in need of a home.

After celebrating with family and friends, the Johnsons headed to Tampa the next day to get the baby. He was 3 days old when they picked him up.

"Once Sam was placed in our arms, he was our child," Tracy Johnson said.

The Johnsons named him Joseph Samuel Johnson. Joseph is a sixth-generation family name on Mark's side. Samuel came from the biblical story of Hannah, who couldn't have a baby so she prayed to God to give her one. He became the prophet Samuel.

They signed the adoption papers, which included a common warning that the adoption was "at risk" because the father was unknown.

"He's our boy, our child," Mark Johnson said. "There is no difference."

The Johnsons, high-school sweethearts from Mississippi, said they spent years with doctors and infertility drugs trying to have their own child. But they weren't successful.

Three years before Sam was born, they decided to adopt. But, they said, Alabama agencies rarely have healthy, white babies. Mississippi doesn't adopt to out-of-state couples. They looked to Florida.

They arrived home from Tampa on March 28 to balloons and signs set up by neighbors.

Tracy Johnson stayed home with Sam for the first three months. When she returned to work part time, they put Sam in a church day care center.

Mark, 36, a quiet man with boyish good looks, supervises construction work. Tracy, 37, a stylish woman with short dark hair, works part time in a medical record section of a hospital.

They moved to Miami after they were married, but eventually settled in Tuscaloosa, a city with a small-town feel though it is the home of 100,000 residents and the University of Alabama.

Two years ago, they moved into a meticulous four-bedroom brick house with white columns in a new subdivision. One entire wall of their two-car garage is adorned with Sam's drawings and assignments from preschool. Pictures of a sandy-haired baby with dark eyes fill the house.

Sam's room, which includes a walk-in closet, is filled with toys, stuffed animals and a huge bed. But he only seems to fall asleep in one of his parents' arms in a guest room across the hall.

The Johnsons are a reserved couple who have a plethora of friends and a calendar chock full of social activities -- almost all with their son. They have dinner with five couples and their kids every month.

They spent this Thanksgiving weekend, like every holiday, with about 30 relatives in Mississippi. That includes both sets of Sam's grandparents, two great-grandmothers, and cousins, including one with a Nintendo game who Sam can't stop talking about.

The Johnsons have never hidden Sam's past from him. They told him he was adopted and even framed the adoption announcement they sent to friends and hung it on his wall. They have accepted gifts for Sam from Vietri, except one that was addressed to Matthew Vietri -- the name Vietri wanted to give him.

Sam was a colicky baby but turned into an energetic, happy child who has settled into his routines, the Johnsons say. They admit he may be a bit spoiled and even jokingly call him "Prince" because he gets everything he wants.

He loves to draw, play on computers and build things like his dad. He collects pirate toys and likes to show off the plastic ship his grandparents bought for him. And he is asking Santa for a Nintendo for Christmas -- which the couple already have bought and hidden away.

Sam talks about being a policeman, ambulance driver or construction worker when he grows up. Sometimes, he says, he wants to be just like his dad when he gets older and marry his mom.

He and Tracy Johnson have a game they often play. She smothers his cheeks with kisses, and he giggles and wipes them off.

"You don't like my sugar?" she asks, knowing he does. He giggles some more.

Laurie Ridler, the longtime preschool teacher whom he calls "Ms. Laurie," said that all the children in his class count him as a friend. He makes people laugh with his hilarious antics. He even has a girlfriend, a little girl with blond ringlets who has been his friend for two years.

A bond difficult to break

Eleven weeks after Sam was born, the Johnsons got another call from the adoption agency. This time, it was bad news.

Sam's biological father wanted his son, and the Tampa agency told the Johnsons that representatives were coming to Alabama to get the baby back. Officials even told them they would swap Sam with another child.

"What happened we didn't ask for," Tracy Johnson said. "But more than that, Sam didn't ask for it."

The Johnsons refused to give Sam back, and hired attorneys for what turned out to be a drawn-out legal fight that still is not over.

"We're right in this," Tracy Johnson said. "If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be here. It's about what's in his best interest. It's about Sam, and it's always been about Sam."

The couple said they wouldn't let Sam go both because of their bond with him and concerns about Vietri's past, which include accusations that he physically abused Sam's biological mother and her claim that he offered to pay for an abortion when she was pregnant. He denies this and adoption agency records contain several references to him wanting to keep the baby at various times during her pregnancy.

The Johnsons will file a motion in the coming weeks asking the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider. Both the Johnsons and Vietri expect Sam to stay in Alabama while the court decides whether to reconsider the case.

Last week, dozens of friends, co-workers and supportive strangers surrounded the couple at a news conference. Their phone rings constantly as sympathetic people from as far away as Boston call them -- some sobbing -- asking what they can do to help. The Johnsons answer all the calls, asking people to pray and write letters to judges.

The Johnsons say they have tried repeatedly to negotiate with Vietri, including just before the trial began two years ago. They said they would have then -- and still would now -- agree to allow Vietri to visit and be a part of Sam's life if they could retain custody.

"If it means he can stay here, we're open to anything," Mark Johnson said. "At this point he's been raised by us. We're all he knows."

Vietri, however, contends the Johnsons have never offered anything and they have not responded to his attempts to contact them.

The Johnsons always wanted more than one child and have been trying to adopt another. But this time, they are dealing directly with lawyers and asking more questions. They had a birth mom who had agreed to let them adopt her baby. Last week, just before finding out about the court decision about Sam, they learned she had a miscarriage.

Now, the Johnsons say the only child they are thinking about is Sam. They said last week they want to meet Vietri face to face to discuss Sam's future.

"Sam is our main concern. We know him better than anyone," Tracy Johnson said. "We would ask (Vietri) to please reconsider -- to love him enough to let him go."

2000 Nov 26