Knock Knock

The weeks that followed mixed together. Soon after I got back from looking at the Court records, I went to my first (and last) meeting of the Adoptee’s Liberty Movement Association, held at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, 7 West 55th Street – just up Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral – the high rent district. I did not know what to expect, though I brought what little information I had along with me to talk to a search consultant. The Church is a Victorian gothic brownstone, complete with flying buttress and pointed arches (3 of them – the Adoption Triad!). I only wanted to find out what happened to me 26 years before. A church built in 1873 in a centuries’ old style originally considered barbaric seemed a fitting place to start. (http://nyc-architecture.com/MID/MID041.htm).

The meeting itself, held on a Saturday, was a bit of a disappointment – not many people and not much help, at least not there. Adoptees were just coming out of the woodwork to look for their origins, perhaps emboldened by the free spirit of the 1960’s. While the meeting itself was a bit of a letdown (I think I naively expected to go and be told how and where to find my mother that day), I did meet Florence Fisher. She again invited me to a rap group to be held in her apartment on Riverside Drive, on Manhattan‘s upper westside.  Also, while the search help at the meeting was rudimentary, Florence gave me two names (along with their phone numbers) that, in time, were invaluable: Betty Jean Lifton (known as BJ, a writer and an adoptee), and Emma Mae Villardi (a genealogist and daughter of an adoptee). I would soon speak with both of them, and that alone was worth the trip to Manhattan.

The following weekend I went to Florence’s apartment. There were not only adoptees there but birthparents as well, including one birthparent in particular: Olga Scarpetta. The Baby Lenore case was famous in New York and across the country. Olga Scarpetta, age 32, from a wealthy Colombian family, came to New York in 1970 to have her child, purportedly because she had just found out that the father was married to someone else.(www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/1995/08/20/1995-08-20_custody_fight_left_scars_paw.html). Lenore was born on May 18, 1970 and within 4 days Olga surrendered the baby to Spence Chapin, a well-known New York  adoption agency. She signed the consent for adoption at Spence Chapin on June 1st, less than 2 weeks after Lenore’s birth. The baby had already been placed for prospective adoption (the process normally took about 6 months to 1 year to formalize) with Nicholas and Jean DeMartino, who lived  (along with their 4-year-old adopted daughter) on 10th Avenue in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. There matters stood until, believing she had made a terrible mistake, Olga Scarpetta returned to Spence Chapin on June 29th and demanded the return of her baby. Then things got interesting.

Spence Chapin refused to honor the birthmother’s request, even though a New York Statute appeared to allow her 30 days to change her mind. Spence Chapin also said nothing to the DeMartinos, with whom Lenore was living in their Brooklyn home. Ms. Scarpetta went to Court to enforce her right to the return of Baby Lenore. The DeMartinos were presumably unaware of the proceeding until just days before the Court hearing scheduled for November 2nd. Moreover, they had no legal standing to participate in the hearing because the dispute was between Olga Scarpetta and Spence Chapin. On November 16th Supreme Court Justice Anthony Ascione directed that Baby Lenore be returned to her birthmother. The DeMartinos refused. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and later the New York Court of Appeals, both affirmed the lower court ruling. The DeMartinos continued to refuse to comply, opting instead to make a federal case out of it. The United States District Court thereafter decided it had no jurisdiction. Later the United States Court of Appeals also ruled against the DeMartinos. A stay of the New York Order was sought before the United States Supreme Court, which declined to act. It was now May, 1971, and Baby Lenore continued to live with the DeMartinos, technically in defiance of Judge Ascione’s Order since the prior November. Judge Ascione directed that Baby Lenore be turned over to Ms. Scarpetta forthwith. Refusal to comply would result in criminal contempt charges against the DeMartinos, who would be subject to immediate arrest. And this is where . . . the DeMartinos got lost. Their attorney reported they were no longer in New York. Within a week, they resurfaced in Florida, ready to do battle there. That the DeMartinos chose Florida seemed more than a coincidence. Olga Scarpetta had little choice but to go to Florida and sue for the return of her daughter. The Florida Courts quickly sided with the DeMartinos, citing that the DeMartinos were ¨the only parents (Lenore) ever knew¨ (a phrase that continues to be used, and abused, by judges, journalists, and litigants  – googling the phrase yields over 28 million results). The DeMartinos raised Lenore in Florida, formally adopting her, with her consent, when she reached the age of 19. (www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/2001/06/27/2001-06-27_possession_and_control_baby.html). After losing in Florida, there was talk of an appeal by Olga. None came.
Nick DeMartino once said, in perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, that ¨if someone gave you a dog and then months later wanted it back, you’d tell them to go to hell.¨ In fairness to Olga Scarpetta, it was not ¨months later,¨ and she was not asking for the return of a pet. It was  not her fault that Spence Chapin chose not to tell the DeMartinos anything for 4 months. In fairness to Nicholas and Jean DeMartino, they were fighting for their family and for what they thought was right. So was Olga. In 1994 (when Lenore was only 22 years old), Jean DeMartino took her own life, in Florida, after battling several illnesses. The lawyer who represented the family years earlier attended the funeral. Lenore, no longer a baby, thanked him for her ¨mom and dad.¨ In one of those odd twists of fate, at about the same time Lenore received a letter, informing her that Olga Scarpetta, her birthmother (a professor at the City University of New York with a doctorate in sociology), had died of breast cancer. Lenore said: ¨I felt as I might have had a stranger died. . . She must have been very confused, very hurt. It makes me sad for her.¨ www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/1995/08/20/1995-08-20_custody_fight_left_scars_paw.html). Olga once said that she came to New York reeling from the discovery that her soon to be husband and father of Lenore was married already. She did not tell her family initially and ended up seeking the advise of Spence Chapin: ¨The main problem in going to them for counseling is that adoption is their business. They (Spence Chapin) talk of it so naturally that it doesn’t help you to reach within yourself.¨ (www.adultadoptess.org/forum/index.php?topic=3788.0).

As a law student, and avid reader of newspapers, I knew the Baby Lenore story well before attending the rap session. I did not know Olga Scarpetta was going to be there. I was just days removed from obtaining what remained of my adoption records – just days removed from seeing the signature of my own birthmother for the first time, a signature relinquishing all of her legal rights to me. I needed, wanted very much, to find her, and it was for that reason I found myself in the apartment of Florence Fisher. I knew Olga Scarpetta only from the newspapers. Like most rap groups (no matter the topic), we all sat in a circle. It was a large comfortable living room. I sat on a chair by myself, looking out the west-facing window towards the Hudson River. Sun splashed into the room, touching Olga, who sat alone on a couch – the center of attention. Florence sat in an arm-chair to her right. I was across the room. Florence spoke first and then encouraged everyone to introduce themselves and say a little bit about who they were and why they were there. (I was there to find my birthmother; as for who I was, I am still trying to figure that out). We listened to Olga, sympathetic to her legal nightmare. She had done everything according to the law and still got screwed.  To this day, a wave of nausea overtakes me when I hear the phrase: ¨torn from the only child she ever knew.¨ Why should the DeMartinos, or anyone else, profit by delay. At least with the DeMartinos, the delay seems more the fault of Spence Chapin, who (probably thinking the case would never make it long enough to upset the DeMartinos) kept them insulated from the legal proceedings for 4 months. Four months is a long time (so is 2 years). There are more outrageous cases than the DeMartinos, where prospective adoptive parents in similar circumstances have intentionally sought delay and then tried to profit from the delay they caused. In the Baby Jessica case (birthmother signs consent for adoption without telling birthfather; lies about him on the consent form; subsequently tells birthfather, who sues to regain the child because he never consented to her adoption),  it appears the prospective adoptive parents (Jan and Roberta DeBoer) attempted to drag out  legal proceedings (for over 2 years) and then argue ¨don’t take Jessica from the only parents she has ever known¨ (they lost). Later, when they were required to hand over the baby to the birthparents, the DeBoers participated in a media circus that surely was not in the best interests of the child. (www.newseek.com/1994/03/21/she-s-not-baby-jessica-anymore.html).

But Olga Scarpetta was also a birthmother, the first one I had ever (knowingly) met. She had signed a consent paper relinquishing her rights to Baby Lenore, the same thing my own birthmother had done after living with me for 2 years. I didn´t have sympathy for that, at least not then. Not that day. Not for many years to come. I didn’t know what to do with it. I was all focused on me. Frankly, Olga seemed a wreck (looking back,who could blame her). I sat there wondering if maybe Baby Lenore might have been better off where she was, with the DeMartinos in Florida.

I left Florence Fisher’s apartment dissatisfied. ALMA was just cranking up and did not seem yet prepared to offer me the type of help I needed. I went on to provide some legal help, drafting the organization’s initial by-laws – something, as a second year law student, I was completely ill-equipped to handle. Thank God for legal forms. Years later, when I would help draft the by-laws of another adoption organization, the ALMA by-laws were used as a model, until we recognized they were (to be polite to myself) useless. I walked out of Florence’s apartment, looking forward to talking with the Simmons Detective Agency, and to calling BJ Lifton and Emma Mae Villardi. Those 3 things propelled me into the Fall.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Adoption Made Easy…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    • Thanks – I appreciate it. I just put up anotehr post today and plan to do 2-3 a week. Feedback encouraged.

  2. nice and really interesting. Thank you for this post.


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