When Eugene Johnson III asked his ex-wife for a photograph of their two children, he hardly thought it would result in a court battle that ultimately would end up in the laps of nine Supreme Court justices.
Johnson, now a 41-year-old Georgetown behavioral psychologist, divorced his wife in 1968 after six years of marriage. She got custody of the children; he got visitation rights.
But when Johnson's former wife, Deborah, and her new husband, John O. LaGorce II, decided to adopt the two children against Johnson's wishes, the struggle over who would be the children's legal father ended up in court.
Over Johnson's protests, a D.C. Superior Court judge granted the LaGorces' adoption of the two children, ruling that although Johnson's fatherly feelings were important, the adoption was in the children's "best interest."
Just what an adopted child's best interest really is, and how it is weighed against the parental right of a father who neither has abandoned nor neglected the child, is apparently what the Supreme Court wanted to examine when it agreed on Monday to hear Johnson's appeal.
Johnson, who works for a research organization in Georgetown, says his former wife and her husband have not permitted him to see his children at all for the past five years.
From mutual friends, he knows that his 16-year-old daughter is interested in the arts, especially painting. His 14-year-old son likes soccer and fishing. Both attend private schools in the Washington area.
Some of Johnson's friends have advised him to kidnap his children while they are at school, but Johnson says he is a "nonviolent person (who ) had faith the system would eventually work out" for him.
He says his former wife has inculcated their children with different values from his own and that he, as the natural father, should be a "significant other person" in their rearing. Johnson met his wife while she was a student at Sweet Briar College, he at Washington & Lee University. He considers himself somewhat counterculture with different values from his wife, whom he describes as a conservative Boston debutante.
"I was faced with the choice of physically taking them, or having someone appointed by the court drag them to me. I was put in a position where all roads to my ex-wife and the children's stepfather were blocked," he said.
After the divorce, Johnson visited with the children several times, taking them on trips, then faithfully dropping them off at the servants' entrance to his ex-wife's Georgetown house, he says.
Over a period of time, however, the children began to object to seeing him. Johnson says he suspects that the protests were inspired by their mother. Court papers showed that the children did apparently object to his overtures.
"The big advantage of the adoption would be to keep Gene (the father ) from coming around" and "sort of declare (us ) legally (a family )," said Johnson's son according to a court transcript. His daughter said the adoption would mean that she would not be "hassled" on her birthday. "I got some roses that said 'From your loving father'. . . we wouldn't have to bother with any of those."
The LaGorces and children were not available for comment, according to their attorney, Hal Whitt.
But whether his children want to see him or not is not the issue, Johnson says. As their father, he has certain parental rights. The children might agree to see him later in their life and their relationship should not be severed now, he said.
The LaGorces initiated adoption proceedings in 1977 shortly after the children's mother received a phone call from Johnson requesting a photograph of the children.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Paul R. Webber III conducted an extensive hearing on the adoption petition, in which he heard from the children, the natural parents and the stepfather. A child psychiatrist also provided his opinion on the mental health of the children.
Judge Webber found that the children viewed their stepfather as their real father and that there was evidence the children were under extreme emotional stress as the result of being legally obligated to visit with their natural father.
Webber based his 1978 adoption award to LaGorce on Johnson's failure to visit his children during a five-year period after the divorce. Webber said that while he recognized Johnson's love for his children as a natural father, the adoption would give "final security to the family unit" of which the children were now a part, instead of "leaving them to wander upon a course of uncertainty in the hope that some day they will be able to accept and benefit from (johnson's ) love."
Johnson says that he had no intention to abandon the children -- which can justify an adoption proceeding -- but had made a conscious effort to avoid emotional upset that seemed to occur whenever he saw them.
Judge Webber's decision was affirmed by the D.C. Court of Appeals last December. The Supreme Court's agreement to review it, however, could have broad significance in similar adoption cases, says Johnson's attorney, Edward L. Genn. But for Johnson, the case's significance is simply a last desperate attempt to contact his children. "We were three peas in a pod," he said.