Almost every night since birth, Vanessa, a spunky toddler who still can’t pronounce her L’s, has slept in a second-floor bedroom painted lavender.
Each night, the woman she calls “Mommy” has read her bedtime stories and sung her songs like the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Then that woman, Stacey Doss of Rancho Santa Margarita, has gone to bed worried that the little girl with Shirley Temple curls would be sent back to Ohio as the result of a nasty interstate custody battle. Doss is not Vanessa’s biological mother.
After nearly three years of legal fighting between Doss and Vanessa’s biological father and grandmother, a settlement was reached last week in an Ohio courtroom that gives full custody to Doss. Vanessa’s father, Benjamin Mills Jr. of Dayton, Ohio, alleged that the baby was put up for adoption without his consent. And by the time he realized what was happening, Vanessa’s birth mother, Andrea Conley, had already given the baby to Doss.
Now, “I can say this is where she lives and this is where she’ll always live,” said Doss, 46.
The story of “Baby Vanessa” garnered national headlines because it pitted the rights of biological parents against the best interests of a child — and some speculated that it could have reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under terms of the settlement, Mills and his mother will have visitation rights. Now, both parties say, Vanessa can get to know her biological family while staying in the home she has lived in since birth.
The case has been complicated from the start.
After years of trying “everything” to have a baby, Doss, decided to adopt through a private agency. Doss said she felt an instant connection with Conley, whose due date happened to fall on Doss’ father’s birthday.
Vanessa arrived 13 days early on June 13, 2008 — sending a frantic Doss to Dayton.
According to court documents, Mills was aware of Conley’s pregnancy. He held his daughter once, in the hospital soon after her birth. Days later, he consulted attorneys because he suspected that Vanessa might be given up for adoption. He filed for custody, halting the proceedings.
At first, Doss said she didn’t take the filing seriously, because she was told that prospective fathers often make initial attempts to gain custody. And Conley had said the baby was the result of a one-night stand.
But Conley and Mills’ relationship turned out to be far more complicated. The couple has two other children together, Amaya and Heaven; and besides a criminal record that includes theft and receiving stolen property, Mills has also been convicted of domestic violence against Conley.
Five months and four days after Vanessa’s birth, the DNA test came back confirming that Mills was the father. Doss said she felt sick to her stomach: “Now, I knew I had a big problem.”
Custody battles between adoptive and biological parents traditionally favor the biological parent — which isn’t always in the best interest of the child, said Christina Riehl, a staff attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. In cases like Vanessa’s, it’s hard to balance the rights of the biological parent with how displacement could affect the child.
“The court isn’t a social engineer,” Riehl said. “They’re not looking at who is going to have the better outcome.”
Doss used her experience in public relations to start a campaign and launched a website filled with photos of herself with Vanessa. The message was clear: Don’t take my child.
She received hundreds of e-mails from people involved in similar custody disputes and used their stories as fuel in her custody battle, which stretched more than 2,000 miles.
There’s Sarah and Jack Napier, a North Carolina couple who recently said goodbye to Max, an adopted child who was with the family for 13 months. The biological mother also initially said the baby was the product of a one-night stand.
“What’s happening to Stacey, that’s really rare,” said Sarah Napier. “What’s happening to us, that’s what happens.”
And there’s Grayson Vaughn, a 3-year-old who was given back to his biological father Oct. 30 by an Indiana couple who had raised him since birth. The couple’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied March 7, according to their website.
Doss spent more than $200,000 on her legal fight and put her two-bedroom condo into foreclosure twice. She’s still about $200,000 in debt.
The hearings spanned two states and were full of drama. Last summer, a California court ordered Doss to return Vanessa to Ohio — an order that was stayed just two days before the deadline. Efforts at mediation in Ohio also failed.
Monday’s settlement ends legal proceedings in both states.
“I may sleep for the first time in 2 1/2 years,” Doss said, expressing relief that she can now officially call herself Vanessa’s mother.
On a recent night, she sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to Vanessa and tucked her daughter into her “big girl” bed.
“Night, night, sweet girl. I love you.”
“I love you, Mom,” Vanessa said, and kissed good night the only parent she knows.