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Adoptive parents steel themselves to lose baby // THE FIGHT FOR BABY SAM

He's just able to stand up without hanging onto something. He chews on his knuckles. He's experimenting with his first two words _ "Ma-ma" and "Da-da." And in less than three weeks, rosy-cheeked Joseph Samuel "Sam" Johnson may have to start adjusting to a new home.

Sam is the much-loved focus of a interstate custody fight.

It was set in motion in March, when a Pinellas teen put her newborn up for adoption and told her boyfriend their baby had died.

After nine months of legal battles, Sam's biological father, Christopher Vietri, has secured a court order to bring the boy back to Pinellas County. An Alabama judge will decide Jan. 29 whether to honor and enforce Florida's order.

So Mark and Tracy Johnson, who have raised Sam as their own since birth, are steeling themselves for the possibility of giving him up, and they want the world to know they don't think it's fair.

"It's not about him (Vietri). It's not about the baby," Tracy Johnson said Thursday. "It's about the courts trying to take away the only family he has ever known. We are his security. We are who he's laughed at. We are who is best for him."

The Johnsons, a reserved, religious couple in their early 30s, want the chance to argue that Vietri should forfeit his rights to the child because, they allege, he mistreated the birth mother during her pregnancy.

But so far, the intricacies of adoption law have prevented them from getting a court hearing on that topic.

Vietri, 26, said he sympathizes. "I'm sure they are going through a lot of pain right now. I would be if I were in their shoes."

However, he wants his son.

"I love him with all my heart and I miss him dearly," he said. "It's not like a car or an animal. It's my son, my blood."

Vietri and a girlfriend, Natasha Gawronski, planned the baby. But in late 1995, during one of many fights, he left their Palm Harbor apartment mid-way through the pregnancy _ taking most of the furniture with him. Vietri said he tried to make up, but Gawronski wouldn't let him back. He called her at work and left a note on her door, asking her to marry him.

Instead, she went to Gift of Life, a St. Petersburg adoption agency, which began paying her living expenses. She told agency workers Vietri had beaten her. A few weeks before birth, however, Gift of Life heard Vietri's side of the story: He always wanted this baby. He didn't beat her, he said. Two altercations documented in police reports were her doing.

Gawronski, who has consistently declined comment, could not be reached.

When Gift of Life told her it wouldn't place the baby for adoption without Vietri's permission, Gawronski signed with Adoption By Choice in Tampa and told workers there she didn't know who the father was. She telephoned Vietri and said the baby had died.

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In a middle-class subdivision of Tuscaloosa, Mark and Tracy Johnson were overjoyed.

High-school sweethearts from Mississippi, they had slogged through the agony of doctors and infertility drugs. About three years ago, they decided to adopt. Alabama agencies rarely have healthy, white babies, they said. Mississippi won't adopt to out-of-state couples. So they tried Florida.

When word came that an adoptable child had been born March 19, the Johnsons drove to Tampa the next day and signed the papers. A clause warned them the adoption was "at risk" because the father was unknown, a common situation.

"When you are told your baby is in the next room and when we get this paperwork out of the way, you can have him, you don't think twice," said Mark Johnson, a construction supervisor.

They named him Joseph Samuel. 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, who became the prophet Samuel. "That was just like me," Tracy said.

They arrived home on March 28 _ Tracy's birthday. Balloons and welcoming signs from friends festooned the neighborhood. They put Sam in a nursery they had set up more than a year before. Tracy, who works in medical records at a hospital, stayed home for a few months. Later, they would leave Sam in a church day care center during the day.

Sam was a colicky infant and fought off sleep. For some reason, the sound of the stove vent in the kitchen soothed him. "We practically wore a groove" in the floor under the vent trying to get him to sleep, Mark Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Christopher Vietri, his mother, Irene, and his new wife, Erika, were trying to find out what happened to the baby. No death notices had appeared, nor did the state have a death certificate.

They hired Clearwater lawyer David Sharp, who filed a paternity suit against Gawronski in Pinellas County a few weeks after the baby's birth. It took almost two months to get to court, where Gawronski finally admitted she gave the baby up for adoption.

For the first time, everyone knew what happened and where the baby was. It was early June, just before Father's Day.

At first, officials at the adoption agency said not to worry, said the Johnsons. A week later, agency officials called to say they were coming to Alabama to retrieve the baby. So the Johnsons hired a lawyer.

"You don't know what your chances are, but you do what you have to do to protect your child," Tracy Johnson said. "When they place that child in your arms, after birth or whether it's an agency, he's your baby."

As outlined by Tampa lawyer Anthony Marchese, who represents the Johnsons, Vietri forfeited his rights because of "pre-birth abandonment." The Johnsons want to argue Vietri physically abused Gawronski and withdrew support by moving during the pregnancy.

Under precedent set in the Baby Doe and the Baby Emily cases, a biological father must show emotional and financial support of the mother during pregnancy or courts can rule that he has "abandoned" his child before birth.

One difference between Baby Sam and those cases is that they were private adoptions, arranged by lawyers. Sam was placed through an agency.

In private adoptions, the rights of biological parents are terminated, and the rights of adoptive parents established through a simultaneous action in family court. All case law about prebirth abandonment was created during family court adoption disputes.

Agencies, however, go through a two-step process. They take legal custody of the baby and petition juvenile court to terminate the biological parents' rights. Then, the prospective parents file for adoption in family court.

When Vietri surfaced, he interrupted this two-step process.

Adoption By Choice had petitioned Hillsborough juvenile court to terminate an unknown father's rights. Later, the agency tried to name Vietri as the father and allege prebirth abandonment.

Circuit Judge Vincent Giglio wouldn't allow it. No case law about prebirth abandonment has been created in juvenile court actions, which are designed to allow the state to take existing children away from abusive parents.

When it comes to adoptions, the law shouldn't distinguish between which court hears the case, Marchese said.

"What difference does it make whether someone called an agency or a lawyer? A child has a right to a father's assistance and the father has an obligation to the child, no matter what phone number the birth mother dials."

In any case, Pinellas Circuit Judge Richard Luce, ruling last month in Vietri's suit against Gawronski, gave Vietri temporary custody. Appeals could take years, he said, and the baby should live with the father who was lied to.

The Johnsons have appealed the Hillsborough rulings, but unless higher courts take the case quickly, Baby Sam is most likely headed back to Florida, Marchese said.

"Our lives will be ruined," said Tracy Johnson. "We will be on our porch and we will be 80 years old. And we will always wonder: What happened to our child?"

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