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A Case to Test the Wisdom of Solomon : Parenthood: Two baby boys were switched at birth. Now Melvin, 8, has two mothers, and the courts will have to decide which one will maintain custody of him.

November 03, 1991|CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATLANTA — Melvin has two mothers. Both want to keep him.

One, Edith Moore, wept "large tears" of joy when a judge ruled last month that she and her husband could keep the boy they adopted as an infant eight years ago.

The other mother, Jodie Pope, actually gave birth to Melvin. She lost him when he was switched in the hospital with another newborn boy who was being placed for adoption. She is appealing the custody order that gives her visitation rights only.

"For me to carry him for all those months and to experience him inside of my stomach and be happy about it . . . that's just something I can't forget," Pope said. "They laid him up here on my chest, and I looked at him and they took him away. And that's all I keep seeing in my mind.

"I want to get to know my son and raise him," she said, her youthful brown ringlets framing sad eyes that look older than her 27 years. "And I think I could be a good mother to him."

Pope, a waitress in Griffin, Ga., has raised another son--Cameron, the boy she was given by mistake. After that mistake was revealed, she adopted Cameron. But she said she can't abandon her quest for the child who came from her womb.

"He's my son," she said, "and I never gave him up."

On Oct. 7, 1983, Pope and another woman gave birth to sons just hours apart at Griffin-Spalding Hospital in Griffin, a small farming and manufacturing town an hour or so south of Atlanta.

The other infant was to be placed for adoption with the Moores. But before Pope and the other new mother were released, the hospital accidentally switched their babies.

Adding to the complexity of the case was a racial difference between the infants: Pope and her then-husband are white, the other baby's biological father was black and his mother white.

State adoption authorities hoped to place the latter child with a mixed-race couple. Moore is white and her husband, Eugene, is black.

Although Pope said Cameron, the boy she took home, was no darker-skinned than some of her relatives who have American Indian blood, her husband came to doubt that the child was his.

Their marriage foundered. But blood tests conducted as part of the divorce proceedings confirmed something more: Not only was he not the father of the boy, by then 5 years old, but she was not the mother.

Through tortuous legal maneuvering to open hospital and adoption records, Pope finally found her biological son, Melvin, being raised by the Moores, a military couple now based in Ft. Knox, Ky.

No one suggests that they aren't excellent adoptive parents.

"For over eight years, the Moores have loved, nurtured and reared the boy as their son," said Judge Frank M. Eldridge of Fulton County Superior Court in his Oct. 3 ruling, which left Melvin in the Moores' custody but gave Pope liberal visitation rights, including two months in the summer, a spring vacation and parts of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The judge acknowledged that Pope is "the biological, natural and legal mother of the child," but he said of the Moores:

"They have given freely of their time, emotions and material possessions to support this boy as their son. To the boy and to the Moores there exists a bonding and familial relationship that no court can undo."

Even Pope said she considers Eugene Moore "a very nice man," and despite their difficult relationship, she and Edith Moore embraced when they met earlier this year. It was Mother's Day, Pope's first visit with Melvin since he lay momentarily on her chest as a newborn.

"Me and Edith have talked a lot on the phone. I've said I really wish we could be friends," Pope said. "I just told her Melvin is my child, and I'm his mother. And I should be the one to raise him."

Her lawyer, Thomas Malone, said Pope cannot "as a conscientious parent" abandon her quest for Melvin on the basis of "blind faith in the Moores."

He added: "If we take this to the Georgia Supreme Court, we might as well take it to the United States Supreme Court.

"There is no precedent anywhere" for a biological mother, who did not give up parental rights, to lose a child is such a case, he said. "I don't see how we can lose."

On the other side, however, the Moores believe Melvin would be the loser.

"Mommy, I don't want to leave," he has told Edith Moore, according to the couple's lawyer, David Gray of Radcliff, Ky. The Moores declined to be interviewed for this story.

"The only argument that Mrs. Pope has is: 'I'm the natural parent: Give him back to me.' But these people are a bit more than third parties," Gray said.

Gray was surprised by Eldridge's ruling, but he praised it: "If you were Solomon sitting there, you couldn't have done better."

"Bring me a sword!" King Solomon ordered in the biblical story of two mothers claiming the same young son. "Divide the living child in two and give half to the one and half to the other." When one woman cried out that she would give up her claim rather than see the child harmed, Solomon awarded him to her.

Twentieth-Century justice is more complicated.

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