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When the bough breaks: Mother finally gives up long battle to adopt her 'heart's daughter'

Sunday, December 12, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Before Betsy Lee allowed herself to admit it was over, she utterly humiliated herself in an attempt to stop it from happening, to stop someone else from adopting her beloved foster daughter and the girl's two sisters.

A caseworker had placed the triplet in Betsy's arms when the baby was just 16 days old, and from that moment, Betsy knew that if the child were ever imperiled, she would risk her life to save her.

A year later, when Beaver County Children and Youth Services told Betsy it had rejected her request to adopt the triplets in favor of a couple none of the girls had ever met, Betsy knew it was the moment when she would have to go to every extreme for the sake of her foster daughter.

At first, Betsy, who was 29, and, Dr. John Lee, who was 28, thought if they simply appealed to CYS' good sense, the agency would change its mind.

The Lees listed their arguments: The triplets' birth mother and the foster mothers who had the two other triplets wanted the Lees to adopt. If they did, their foster daughter would be spared the trauma of a move, and her sisters would be less distressed because they knew the Lees from visits. In addition, most child welfare agencies give foster parents the first opportunity to adopt because the children are bonded to them.

CYS was unswayed.

So Betsy Lee set about pleading with public officials, from county commissioners to first lady Hillary Clinton. She appealed to neighbors and friends to write juvenile court. She petitioned the state Department of Public Welfare, which supervises CYS.

No judge, no politician, no bureaucrat helped.

On Nov. 13, 1998, a CYS caseworker went to the Lees' house in Beaver and took their 14-month-old foster daughter from them.

That was not the end for Betsy, though. Still hoping the child could be returned to her, she filed a federal lawsuit describing her family's misery, not just hers and John's, but also that of Mary and Charles, the Lees' older foster children, who saw the baby as their sister. Mary and Charles asked about the baby every day and wanted to send her little gifts and food.

The court denied the Lees' plea for immediate action and permitted numerous delays. As time passed, Betsy felt her daughter slipping from her, carried away on a powerful tide that all her letters and lawsuits and logic couldn't turn back.

Mixed signals

Betsy felt from the beginning that the triplets should have been together, but CYS always refused.

At first, when the babies were put in foster care in September 1997, CYS said it was placing them in separate foster homes because they were on heart monitors, so it would have been hard for one family to deal with them all.

But even after the babies were removed from the monitors, CYS refused to give the Lees all three girls.

Six months later, however, the Lees' CYS caseworker supported their suggestion that they not only be allowed to adopt the triplets, but also the triplets' older brother and sister, plus the Lees' other two foster children, Mary and Charles.

By that time, Betsy Lee was pregnant with her first child, so the Lees would have ended up with eight children. But they were willing to take on the challenge.

Yet by mid-June 1998, just three months later, CYS had completely changed its plan. For one thing, the triplets' older brother and sister were with their father by then, so they were not adoption prospects anymore.

More importantly, CYS officials told the Lees that they no longer thought the young couple could handle a large family. They were willing to let the Lees adopt Mary and Charles, but that was all.

The Lees tried to explain that they would have help from friends and fellow church members. They asked for an expert evaluation of their ability to care for six children under the age of 6. They argued that their foster daughter's bond to them shouldn't be broken just because they'd have a large family.

None of that mattered to CYS. It had chosen another adoptive couple for the triplets, one that had no children.

John Lee's initial reaction was to acquiesce, but Betsy couldn't. She told John, "They are taking my baby away. I have to know I did everything possible to keep her with us."

Going to court

For the Lees, that meant filing a federal lawsuit alleging that CYS had discriminated against them. John is an Asian-American physician, and one CYS consultant had suggested that he would be so career-driven that he would not give Betsy the help she would need with a large number of children.

At the same time CYS was saying their family would be too large if they adopted the triplets, the Lees discovered that the agency was permitting another physician and his wife to adopt 15-month-old twins, even though they already had seven children of their own and were expecting another.

The Lees asked federal court to stop the triplets' adoption and give them visits. Betsy wrote the pleadings herself, because the Lees did not want to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers' fees.

Although she used some legal language, much of Betsy's pleadings were filled with the emotion of loss. She told the court:

"I am not a lawyer, I am, at heart, a mother. Over the past nine months, my life and the life of my family has been thrown into a form of grief which defies expression. The birth of my first natural child was marked by the impending loss of my first baby.

"I have written every person I can think of in the United States of America who I thought would listen ... and ultimately prevent my precious, helpless daughter from being taken from her father's arms as though she were just a puppy dog, just a trinket or a plaything -- not a child who knew her name, her siblings, her friends, her mommy and her daddy."

The court did not respond, at least not within a time the Lees felt was reasonable for returning the triplets. As months passed, Betsy let go of her "heart's daughter" and her hope of seeing her again. She decided that she would not wrench her away from new parents to whom she'd bonded.

So late last summer, she and John withdrew their request for visits and for delay of the adoption. The bulk of the lawsuit continues to languish in federal court. Betsy amended it to include the grievances of other women against CYS.

She and John adopted Mary and Charles in June, and moved to Texas in July. They have no intention of waging the lawsuit from there and hope some crusading attorney will pick it up and fight for the sake of other families who feel they were wronged by CYS.

Betsy has no regrets about her humiliating loss:

"I wanted to have a record that, if she ever wanted to find out, she would find that these people loved her so much that this woman made a complete fool of herself."

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