When Rick Jandrt's girlfriend told him she was pregnant, "Of course I thought, 'What am I going to do? Here I am, going to be a possible father.' "
The couple talked the situation over and came to a decision: Since neither wanted to marry the other, the logical solution was to put the baby up for adoption. But the more he thought about it, and after talking the situation over with friends, Jandrt began to think that "possibly I could get custody of this forthcoming baby."
After deciding that, indeed, it was something he might do, Jandrt began to mull over questions like: "Was I capable of raising a child, physically and mentally? Was I willing to give up my life style for the next 20 years or so? If the child was deformed or handicapped, would I still be willing to accept this child?"
But on a deeper level, haunting him more, was "the thought of this child being adopted out and my never knowing what gender it was, or where it was, how it was being raised."
This is not a story of a teen-age boy and girl "getting into trouble." It started in January 1980, when Jandrt was 30 years old and earning $24,000 a year as a data processor with an Omaha-based insurance company. His girlfriend, a secretary, was 32.
The hitch: Jandrt's girlfriend told him "she would not let me have custody of the child and that she would fight me for that."
Still, he was determined to go ahead. "I was mature enough to realize that there would be a lot of obstacles to overcome and that it would not be easy. I had the ability to educate myself in the areas concerning child care and nurturing and so forth."
Jandrt retained an attorney to determine "the rights I had as a single father to gain custody of a child." The attorney advised Jandrt to learn child care "from a respectable agency," line up a doctor to care for the baby after its birth and arrange for a state-licensed baby-sitter to cover his working hours.
The lawyer filed a claim for paternity to establish Jandrt's parental rights and to prevent placement of the child without his permission after the child was born. Jandrt began contacting state and county social services agencies to find where he could get child-care training . . . without luck. When he heard a radio ad for a parent-assistance hotline he called the number and was told they couldn't help him, but that he should call the Child Saving Institute (CSI).
"They CSI had a program for unwed mothers, but nothing for single or unwed fathers," says Jandrt. "They suggested I call the Red Cross or the Visiting Nurse Association." Pennelope S. Parker, the CSI social worker who talked with Jandrt, told him to call back if he drew a blank, adding they possibly could line up something for him.
The Visiting Nurses didn't have a program that would work for him. The Red Cross' was inappropriate: "Three two-hour classes where you diaper a baby and change it and bathe it . . . but it was working with dolls."
By this time, Jandrt had two attorneys working on his case. "They found there was very little legal information to provide us help when we were preparing to go to trial. What it came down to," he says, "was: 'Rick, you've got to prove yourself. You've got to prove to these people that you can take care of a baby, that you can raise this child without other people stepping in to take over.' . . .
"It was something else," says Jandrt, recalling his mounting frustration. "I wanted to learn how to take care of an infant, and I was finding nothing available to help me." Depressed and anxious, he called the Child Saving Institute again.
Since his earlier call, social worker Parker had discussed his situation with her coworkers. "They had agreed to come up with a program individually tailored for me, taking care of children, bathing and feeding them, and I would be working with real, live babies!"
After he began the CSI classes, Parker put Jandrt in contact with Ben Cacioppo, a psychiatric social worker and teacher, to help him in his single-father role and to learn about "nurturing and raising and educating an infant child."
As he continued in the CSI program, Jandrt says he "began to get strong feelings about my forthcoming child. Would I ever be able to hold this baby in my arms? Would I even be able to see this baby? Would all this that I was going through be for nothing?"
It was his friends, says Jandrt, who got him through those periods of doubt and anxiety. "They picked me up and set me on my feet again."
When the baby's due date, Sept. 21, 1980, came and passed, and he had received no word of the birth, Jandrt made inquiries once or twice a week for a month or so.
"I finally found out from one of the social agencies involved that the child had been born on Sept. 19 and had gone into foster care on Sept. 22. My daughter had been in foster care for four weeks, and I hadn't been aware of her birth."
Jandrt's attorneys filed a petition for custody; a trial date was set for early that November. In the interim, Jandrt was allowed two, hour-long visitations with his daughter -- whom he named Rebecca -- at the United Catholic Social Services facilities in Omaha. "It was," he says, "a beautiful experience."
On Nov. 10, 1980, the day of the trial, Jandrt's attorneys and the attorney representing Rebecca's mother gathered in the judge's chambers. When they came out two hours later, "Rebecca's mother's attorney," says Jandrt, "had convinced her that there was no way they could prove I would not be a fit and proper parent. He advised her to agree to a relinquishment, as she had decided not to keep Rebecca herself."
The mother agreed. The judge, however, still wanted to question Jandrt in a formal hearing. He wanted to know about Jandrt's financial situation, what he knew about child care, arrangements made for Rebecca's care during working hours.
Ben Cacioppo took the stand as a witness. Two questions the judge asked Cacioppo stand out in Jandrt's mind: "He wanted to know if Ben thought I was a womanizer, and he wanted to know if Ben thought I was an alcoholic."
The decision was to put Jandrt on "probation" for 6 months, during which he would have possession of Rebecca but the court would have custody. Also the judge ruled that Jandrt was to attend "some type of formal, positive parenting class" during the probation period. Rebecca's attorney and a county social services representative would have the right to enter Jandrt's house to assess Rebecca's care.
Jandrt left the hearing elated, but also in a daze. Although he had won custody of his daughter, he was confounded by all the rules and restrictions. "This was soon out of my mind, when I was on my way to pick up Rebecca that night and bring her home. He had bought and moved into his house only two days before. All the people involved were there and we had quite a celebration."
The 6-month probation period passed and Jandrt gained full custody of Rebecca. It had been a long, difficult and expensive process. (Jandrt says it cost him around $7,000.) "I had the fees of my two attorneys . . . Rebecca's mother's attorney's fees . . . Rebecca's attorney's fees, foster care fees, prenatal fees for Rebecca's mother. After Rebecca was born there were medical expenses.
"It caused considerable hardship on my part, but to get to the normal everyday aspects of parenting was the primary interest and concern for me."
Rebecca, now 26 months old, is "a normal, happy and beautiful girl." Jandrt, who turns 33 today, is now a resource-planning analyst with an Omaha-based subsidiary of American Express.
Jandrt says his and Rebecca's lives have settled down to a "fairly predictable schedule." Weekday mornings he drops her off at a neighbor's home for the day and picks her up on the way home.
What would he do if Rebecca were sick? "I would stay home with her," says Jandrt, "but that hasn't happened." When he was seriously sick himself, "I took her to the Children's Crisis Center for two days. The center provides food, beds, toys and trained child-care specialists for a nominal fee."
Rebecca's effect on his career? "If anything, it has had a positive effect. The responsibility factor has increased." Jandrt says he has, however, cut down on overtime. "If I didn't deem it absolutely necessary now, I wouldn't work it."