WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Since Rodger and Dawn Schneider took in baby Neena a year ago, they have taught her to call them mommy and daddy and helped her get over a fear of Mickey Mouse with four trips to Disney World.
The Schneiders would love to adopt the now 2-year-old girl given up by a 16-year-old family friend. But they can't do that without potentially destroying the young mother's reputation.
Under Florida law, any mother who doesn't know who fathered her child must bare her sexual history in a newspaper advertisement before an adoption becomes final. The goal is to find the father and stave off custody battles that can break up adoptive families.
The law makes no exception for rape and incest victims or minors, like the girl who gave up legal custody of Neena. Adoption advocates have condemned the law as a draconian invasion of privacy and say it encourages abortions.
"There's no comparable law in any other state, and it's really hard to imagine how a legislature could pass such a law if they thought about it," said Bob Tuke, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "It treats women like chattel."
Ads must be placed in the legal notices or family sections of newspapers once a week for four weeks in the city or cities where conception might have occurred. The ads must include:
• The mother's name and physical description, including age, race, hair and eye color, height and weight.
• The name of any man who could have fathered the child, any known address and a detailed physical description.
• The child's birth date, and the time and place where the baby might have been conceived.
The law requires a mother to list her name, age and description, along with descriptions of any men who could have fathered the child. The ads must be placed in a newspaper in the city where the child was conceived.
For example, Neena's mother now lives in Florida, but she would have to run the ad in a Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, where her friends, classmates and grandmother could see it.
"It's pathetic what we have to go through," Rodger Schneider said. "I feel that all these legislators didn't take into account how these laws are going to affect not just the girls who want the adoptions but also the families who want to adopt."
Florida has 5,000 to 7,000 adoptions a year, and 80 percent of them are private. The law, which applies only to private adoptions, took effect last October. Only now are adoptions beginning to be held up in court.
When lawmakers overwhelmingly signed off on the bill last year, they cited the three-year fight over Baby Emily, whose father, a convicted rapist, contested her adoption.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that Emily's adoptive parents should keep her, but it told lawmakers to set a deadline for challenging adoptions. The law prohibits anyone from opposing an adoption after two years.
A judge has ruled the law should exempt rape victims in Palm Beach County.
Later this month, an attorney representing six women plans to ask a judge in West Palm Beach to declare the entire law unconstitutional.
Democratic state Sen. Walter Campbell, the law's prime sponsor, stopped short of saying it violates privacy rights. But he said it needs to be changed so it does not embarrass mothers and their children.
"The fairest system would be to let the birth mother make the final decisions," he said.
Gov. Jeb Bush, who allowed the legislation to become law without his signature, supports a system that allows men who believe they might have fathered a child to put their name in a confidential registry that must be checked during adoption proceedings.
"We should be making adoption easier, not more difficult and not stigmatizing women who are trying to do the right thing," Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said.
Adoption proponents say the registry provides the best balance of a father's rights and a mother's privacy.
"How many potential birth fathers comb the newspapers every day to see if they might possibly have a child somewhere? It's a silly statute," adoption attorney Tuke said. "But for someone who's really interested, (the registry) gives them something to do, and that's what other states that are sensible have done."
The Schneiders, who cannot have a child of their own, are putting off Neena's adoption in hopes the law will be tossed out. They don't want to force her mother to detail her past in the newspaper.
For now, they will keep custody of the child.
"The birth father has a right, but where has he been? This child is 2 years old," Rodger Schneider said.
"We want her to be ours, to have our name, but this is nobody's business except the family's."