"Your baby girl is here," the voice on the phone said. "Come in tomorrow and we'll present the baby to you."
It was Sept. 18, 1979, the day a dream finally seemed to be coming true for John and Susie Groth, a well-to-do Kensington couple, who had been trying for more than a year to adopt a child.
But the next morning at the adoption agency, moments before the couple was to see the baby, the agency refused to give her to them -- or to consider them for any other baby -- and the dream was shattered.
What happened at the meeting is now the subject of a $3-million law suit the Groths have filed in D.C. Superior Court against the Baker Foundation, a highly regarded private adoption agency in Northwest Washington.
The Groths say the agency's reversal came after the couple questioned the child's medical history, which included the possibility of a rare and devastating hereditary disease called Huntington's chorea.
The Groth's law suit charged the agency with breach of contract, contending that the agency, after it approved the couple, had promised them a "normal, reasonably healthy child," and then downplayed the serious implications of Huntington's chorea.
In court documents, the agency has formally denied all the allegations.
Huntington's chorea, an always fatal degenerative nerve desease, is undetectabled until the first outward signs appear, usually when the victim reaches middle age. The disease causes loss of control of facial and body movements, one muscle at a time, eventually causing insanity, before the victim dies. Its most famous victim was folksinger Woody Guthrie, whose son, Arlo Guthrie, lives in fear that he may contract it. Arlo Guthrie's chances are 50-50.
Employes of the adoption agency refused to discuss the Groth incident with The Washington Post. A source familiar with the situation, however, said the agency decided to remove the couple from its list of suitable parents not because of the Huntington's chorea issue alone, but because of the Groths' intense concern with all the medical information on the baby.
The agency felt the couple was demanding a "perfect" baby, something the agency couldn't possibly provide, the source said.
At the time of the meeting, Susie Groth a Washington Junior League member active in local arts organizations, knew nothing about Huntington's chorea. She knew only that numerous operations to enable her to have a child had failed. She knew that the baby's clothes and toys are ready, the pink announcement cards stacked to be mailed, the special "Year of the Child" stamps ready to be affixed.
She also knew that the books she'd purchased about adoption all instructed would-be adoptive parents to probe as deeply as they can into the medical history of the child.
"I was dizzy, shaking, the room was spinning, I kept asking myself 'Why? After all this?' she recalled. They had had a series of interviews and had waited seven months before the agency had appoved them. They had paid a $625 approval fee and waited another seven months for word that a child was available.
"The baby was in the next room and now it was all slipping away," she said.
John Groth, a management consultant and former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, continued to press for details at the meeting. He knew something about the disease. His uncle had married a woman who died of the disease after suffering for 30 years. His cousin is now institionalized with it. "It's a nightmare, the worst thing that could happen. It was all around me while I was growing up," he said later in an interview.
He continued to question the caseworker not only about the Huntington's chorea but also about other items in the child's medical history, such as an allergy to penicillin and a possible strain of diabetes. "Susie was crying and began to crumble," he recalled, but he wanted to know what the risks were, and he could get no precise answer, only a feeling that his questions were viewed as an insult.
In depositions filed with the court, agency officials said their decision was in fact based on the way the couple reacted to the general medical information that had nothing to do with Huntington's chorea in particular. For example, one caseworker said she didn't think it was fair for John Groth to question her about the possible consequences of the child's allergy to penicillin.
In her deposition, Ruth Dubb, executive director of the foundation, said the agency was not even sure the child's family actually had a history of Huntington's chorea, but "we feel it our responsibility to share directly and honestly all information that we get," Agency officials pointed out that it is often impossible to get complete medical information on children to be adopted. o
At the end of the meeting, Dub came in to tell the Groths that "we feel this baby is not right for you, and none of our babies are going to be right for you; you are not willing to take risks [involved in adopting a child],'" John Groth recalled. He said she also noted that there were other families who would take the child. (The child reportedly has since been adopted.)
Efforts by some friends and the Groth's attorney, Hubert Schlosberg, led to another meeting at the foundation two months later. At that meeting, the Groths said, caseworkers delivered what seemed to be a prepared statement "with an ex post facto justification" for saying they were unsuitable and a warning not to sue the foundation.
In a deposition, one agency official acknowledged she "suggested" that a lawsuit would be "embarrassing" to the Groths.
Attempts by D.C. Superior Court Judge Fred McIntyre to settle the suit have failed, a court source said, adding that the matter has become a "personality dispute." The Groths are willing to drop their suit if the foundation will give them a baby girl. The foundation has refused to do so, the source said.
Ironically, shortly after the suit was filed, Susie Groth became pregnant.
After being hospitalized on her back for five weeks, she gave birth to a son, John Kindig Groth, born eight weeks premature with pneumonia and other complications. The baby is healthy now, but Susie Groth cannot risk having another child.
"The little guy makes this a little easier to go through -- but not much easier," John Groth says bitterly. "It's a matter of principle. . . . No one is going to tell me I'm an unfit parent. We want our baby girl."