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The Baby Richard Go-Round


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By Michael Miner

The Baby Richard Go-Round

Is a last word possible on "Baby Richard"? The Tribune just spent a week arguing with itself about the now six-year-old boy, possibly adding to the confusion and certainly failing to resolve it.

The story so far: "Richard" is born in March 1991, while his father, Otakar Kirchner, is abroad; the mother, Daniela Janikova, angry with the boyfriend she feels has forsaken her, signs a legal consent relinquishing her son for adoption, and Jay and Kim Warburton take the four-day-old infant home. When Kirchner returns to Chicago two months later he's told the boy is dead; when he discovers the truth he goes to court to contest the adoption. In September he and Janikova marry.

Kirchner loses the early rounds, but eventually the Illinois Supreme Court grants him custody of his son. In April 1995 the four-year-old boy is separated from the Warburtons and their biological son, who's seven years old. The Kirchners take him home, and he becomes Danny Kirchner. In January 1997 Otakar Kirchner moves out, leaving Danny with Daniela Kirchner. In June Daniela, with the support of her estranged husband, petitions the court to void the consent she'd signed in 1991 surrendering her son. In July she attempts to withdraw her petition, but Circuit Judge Gay-Lloyd Lott says no.

The judge is determined to conduct a hearing, which prompts Bob Greene to write prayerfully, "Richard and his brother may finally begin to get their day in court before a judge who is willing to listen."

It was Greene, naturally, who set the scene for the week's drama. "This," announced the Tribune columnist two Sundays ago, "may be the best chance the child who was known as Richard--and the adoptive brother he loved, and who loved him--ever gets."

On Monday the hearing was held. Otakar told the judge that he'd moved back in and the family was fine. Nevertheless the judge refused to allow Daniela to withdraw her petition. "When you put this case back in court, you put everything back on the table," he told her attorney. He ordered the Cook County Department of Supportive Services to make an immediate evaluation of her son's home life.

Greene was delighted. "Finally, the well-being of the child who was known as Richard is going to be the most important factor in the eyes of a court of law," he wrote in his next column, which appeared Wednesday in Tempo. Richard's "rights have been ignored ever since the Illinois Supreme Court--with James Heiple writing the opinion--refused to allow him even a minute in court on his own behalf before he was loaded into that van."

Unfortunately Tempo is printed a day before the paper it appears in, and because of this delay Greene's column was out of date by the time it hit the streets. The Metro section of the same edition reported that the Illinois Supreme Court had already intervened, asking Judge Lott to explain in writing why he hadn't allowed Daniela Kirchner to withdraw her petition. The home visit was postponed. (This week the court reversed Lott, allowing Daniela to withdraw her petition and canceling the home visit.)

On Thursday the Tribune editorial page weighed in most remarkably. "Something about the so-called Baby Richard case has a way of making people who ought to be sensible adults behave foolishly," said the Tribune. "The latest to fall under this spell is Cook County Circuit Judge Gay-Lloyd Lott, who on Monday decided it wasn't enough to do his job in the Richard case; he had to DO JUSTICE.

"Fortunately, the Illinois Supreme Court stopped Lott before he could do any serious damage. One hopes the court will make permanent next week its temporary stay of the judge's meddlesome ruling."

The editorial ridiculed the judge: "Whether because of the troubles with Otakar or for some other reason, Daniela recently petitioned the Circuit Court to set aside her surrender of parental rights and restore her as 'Richard's' legal mother. Then she thought better of it and had her lawyer ask the court to withdraw the petition.

"Enter Judge Lott. Faced with this routine request--one that ordinarily would be granted without a second thought--Lott decided to think.

"'I think,' he said in court Monday, 'when you put this case back in court, you put everything back on the table.'

"Nonsense! If Daniela had been pursuing her original petition, yes, everything would be on the table. But she was asking to stop the proceeding, to change nothing, to simply leave things as they already were.

"But Lott had his teeth into a good one and wasn't going to let it get away."

The Tribune editorial, which was written by editorial page editor Don Wycliff, applauded the state supreme court for stepping in. Then, without naming Greene, it told him to shut up. The Tribune editorial page advised the famous Tribune columnist that it was sick of his three-year-long crusade.

"It's time," said the Tribune, "for Lott and everyone who has popped off about this case, from Gov. Jim Edgar down, to grow up and butt out. 'Baby Richard' is a 6-year-old boy. He doesn't need saving or rescuing or even Justice. He needs for himself and his family to be let alone."

The next day editorial columnist R. Bruce Dold jumped into the Baby Richard tangle like a cane cutter swinging a machete. Chop--the boy should have stayed with the Warburtons. Chop--the supreme court ruling giving him to the Kirchners was terrible, and James Heiple's petulant opinion made it even worse. Chop--Otakar Kirchner has acted like a "lout." Chop--but the boy's lived with the Kirchners for two years now. Chop--like it or not, the old arguments for leaving him with the Warburtons are now arguments for leaving him with the Kirchners. Chop--so let the boy get on with his life. "The courts have played cruel tricks on Danny Kirchner, and the courts can't undo the damage."

Here was a voice of reason. But the Baby Richard case proved too dense for Dold to clear. He wrote, "If there is reason to think that Danny Kirchner is being mistreated, the courts should step in. If Daniela Kirchner tries again to revoke her decision to give up parental rights, or tries to adopt the child she gave away, the courts will have every right to shine a big light in her living room. And the courts would be entirely justified to tell her, 'Forget it.'"

Shouldn't Daniela, who after all is Danny's mother by both birth and circumstance, be applauded for wanting to become again his mother by law? Instead, Dold served notice. Unless evidence of abuse surfaces without our looking for it, he told her, the courts should do nothing so long as you do nothing. But if you try to reestablish legal authority over Danny it'll be open season on you.

Dold and the Tribune took no notice of the preposterous catch-22 Daniela Kirchner finds herself in. She can do nothing, and continue to raise a boy she has no claim on--and whom she could lose tomorrow at the whim of his father. Or she can try to make a claim and have to run a gauntlet of hostile judges, journalists, and social workers itching for a chance to carry Danny off. What about this status quo makes Dold and the Tribune endorse it?

"I don't think in the end she would lose him in any case," Dold told me. Unless evidence of abuse turned up, he doubted that a hearing would cost her her son. But that prospect was beyond the scope of his column. His "big problem" was with Lott, for insisting on a hearing even after Daniela tried to withdraw her petition.

Anyway, Dold's wasn't the last word. Last Sunday psychiatrist Bennett Leventhal and psychologist Lauren Wakschlag of the University of Chicago contributed an essay to the Perspective section. Both had been involved in the Baby Richard case early on, opposing his transfer from the Warburtons to the Kirchners. "Richard lost the first round," they mourned, describing his change of households as a "full-fledged catastrophe." Now they had a suggestion to make: "We can only guess how well he might have coped with his torture. But it might not be a bad idea to check."

Dold had ripped Judge Lott for having "sicked the family inspectors" on Daniela Kirchner. "To what end?" he asked. "So someone clutching his master's degree in social work can parade into Danny Kirchner's living room for an afternoon and pronounce the boy happy, hale and hearty? Or clinically depressed? And then what? So the courts can toss around Danny Kirchner for another few years?"

To give you an idea how deep the divisions are, Leventhal and Wakschlag, like Bob Greene, didn't even acknowledge that a Danny Kirchner exists. To them he remains Richard. And they implied that an MSW or a parade of them should be assigned to Richard's case. Checking on Richard won't be easy, they cautioned. "It requires a good deal of time and patience, talking to those who know him now and those who knew him then. It involves observing him at home, at play, at school, in as many different environments and situations as possible."

After all, they wrote, "The key issue at stake, the only one that matters, and the one completely absent from the previous decision, is still the best interests of this child." There's no arguing with that. And on this note the Tribune came full circle. Bob Greene had written the same thing a week earlier.

Say, That Villain Looks Familiar...

Mary Schmich has written Brenda Starr for the last 12 years with the panache of a bandleader on the Titanic. Unlike so many other old strips that flickered out as wan, desperate facsimiles of their prime, 57-year-old Brenda is a carefree hoot. The other day Schmich brought socialite columnist Vanity Puffington into the Flash city room. Her first page-one scoop: "Poverty--a Media Myth."

"I do have a real full-time job," said Schmich, a Tribune columnist. "[Brenda's] not my real full-time job, but I've been doing it so long that I probably underestimate the stake I have in it. When I really think about it, I realize I am invested in these characters, and it is an opportunity to lay out a lot of thoughts I have about a lot of things that even in a column I don't get to play out. But I remind myself that I don't own it. I have artistic control over it, but no control over its fate."

I asked Schmich how many papers carry Brenda. "I never pay attention because I don't want to know," she said. "It's just hanging on, basically. I take a certain consolation with Brenda that it was bleeding to death when I took it over. Now it's not bleeding to death. It's stayed fairly stable in the time I've done it. But anybody who dreams of turning it into Dilbert--it wasn't ever fated to be."

The day Schmich introduced Puffington, the Tribune carried an ominous notice: "Today marks the last episode of 'Terry and the Pirates.'...The long-running adventure comic strip, started in 1924 by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, discontinued publication in 1973, then was revived in 1995. The announcement, made by Tribune Media Services, the syndicate that distributed the strip, said serial comics had become less popular with newspaper editors and less profitable for the syndicate."

Terry (actually launched by Milton Caniff in 1934) was revived two years ago with astonishing ballyhoo. A bulging TMS press packet boasted of writer Michael Uslan, who'd been executive producer of the Batman movies, and famed comics artists Greg and Tim Hildebrandt. It promised "studly heroes, ruthless villains, barroom brawls and high-tech gizmos."

Uslan and the Hildebrandts were long gone when Terry sent its hero back to college and expired.

TMS is also Brenda's syndicate. "I am aware of the tenuous nature of all the old story strips, and I gulped when I saw Terry and the Pirates was gone," Schmich said. "For it to die that harsh, abrupt death took me aback."

Curiously, as the story strips disappeared the gag-a-day strips started telling stories. Luann pines for the lips of a Aaron Hill. Funky Winkerbean's pal Les Moore hunts the killer of John Darling. Cathy's downsized out of a job by her ex-boyfriend. "But they're not the kind of intricate story lines the old story strips have," said Schmich. "You can still, in the gag-a-day strips, get your gag a day."

She went on, "I'm always riding a fine line between something quasi-realistic and something totally absurd. I try not to be too much into the absurd or you lose readers. But I do rely on the understanding of the faithful reader that there's a certain amount of camp in this. Part of the reason Brenda stays somewhat absurd is that she's always been that way, and I feel a certain obligation to the historical tone of the thing."

Explain Vanity Puffington, I said.

"I was sitting around with another journalist friend saying, I have to come up with another plot," Schmich told me. "I didn't want the villain to be another man. Who could I bring into the newsroom who'd drive Brenda crazy? Someone with more status than she had, someone good-looking, someone completely odious to her, a thoroughly bad person. And I thought, Vanity Puffington! She came to me in a vision."

Or perhaps in the other paper, where Arianna Huffington holds forth?

"You can infer whatever you want," said Schmich. "I would say she's an amalgam."

Of several Sun-Times columnists? I asked, thinking of local socialite Sugar Rautbord and regal ditherer the Duchess of York among others.

"Perhaps even one we used to run in our paper."

I told Schmich to watch what she said about Linda Bowles, who used to send me candy every time I made fun of her.

"Did I mention Linda Bowles in this conversation?" said Schmich.

Backscratchers, Inc.

Chicago author Carol Felsenthal, a friend of mine, dropped a note recently to the American Journalism Review on the subject of its reviews of two books about Katharine Graham: Felsenthal's own biography of a few years back and Graham's recent memoir. Felsenthal wrote that she'd found it hard to quarrel with Carl Sessions Stepp's 1993 review of her Power, Privilege, and the Post because Stepp had liked the book; nevertheless, she was disconcerted by his acknowledgment at the end of the review that he'd done consulting work at Graham's Washington Post and that his wife worked there.

Last April Stepp reviewed Graham's Personal History in AJR. "This time around, Stepp does not even bother to offer a disclaimer," Felsenthal commented. "Couldn't you find a reviewer without financial ties to the Post and the Graham family?"

AJR seemed to consider this a point well made. The magazine ran Felsenthal's letter and responded: "AJR should have mentioned that Stepp, the magazine's senior editor and its regular book reviewer, has done some consulting for the Washington Post and that his wife works there."

That isn't what AJR should have done. It should have found somebody else to review those books.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Baby Richard photo/ uncredited.

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