Family Law

Heiress Loses Custody of Adopted Cambodian Son

For some people, adoption is the answer when it's time to start a family. It's usually a happy, exciting time. Sometimes, though, it's not always smooth sailing - even for the "rich and famous," as Elizabeth Johnson's story shows.

Johnson Case

Elizabeth Johnson is the heiress to the fortune made by her family's business, Johnson & Johnson, the company that made "band-aid" and dozens of other products household staples. For the past few years, she's been involved in custody dispute with her ex-boyfriend, Dr. Lionel Bissoon

Johnson and Bissoon met William as a baby in 2003 in Cambodia, not long after he was abandoned by his birth parents in a Cambodian village. The couple planned to adopt the child together. However, there were legal problems with the adoption, so Bissoon took advantage of being a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and adopted the boy on his own in 2004.

They brought the child to the US where they lived together in Johnson's home. Shortly afterward, however, the Johnson-Bissoon relationship deteriorated. Ultimately, in 2006, Johnson secretly adopted William in a New York court.

Bissoon sued Johnson immediately to have the adoption voided so he wouldn't lose custody or his parental rights to Johnson. After nearly three years and three court opinions - the most recent in February 2010 - Johnson's adoption was invalidated, mainly because Bissoon had legally adopted the boy in 2004. Bissoon is William's only legal parent.

Inter-Country Adoptions

According to the US Department of State, each year there are thousands of adoptions by US citizens of children born in foreign countries. These are sometimes called "inter-country" or "foreign adoptions."

As the Johnson-Bissoon adoption shows, inter-country adoptions aren't always fast or easy. There are legal hurdles in both the US and the child's native country. And the process itself is different depending on the foreign country.

The Hague Adoption Convention applies to adoptions started on or after April 1, 2008 between the US and 78 other countries, including Cambodia. It's a multi-step process designed to stop international trafficking of children while at the same time making it possible for orphans find a better a life.

If the child's native country doesn't belong to the Hague Convention, then an entirely different set of rules and procedures apply to the adoption. This "old" method also has many steps to protect children across the globe.

Neither process is easy. Anyone thinking about an inter-country adoption should get some help from an experienced attorney or a reputable adoption agency.

Remember What's Important

It's not so much a matter of "what," but rather "who" is important. The goal of any adoption should be the child's best interests. Giving the child a safe home and loving family is what it's all about, right? It seems Bissoon remembered that.

After his recent court victory, he said he had no intention of removing William from Johnson's home because he's lived there all of his life. All he wants is to co-parent William with Johnson - he's not even opposed to letting Johnson file a second-parent adoption petition.

Try to keep the child's best interests in mind at all times, even if you later run into problems like Johnson and Bissoon.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • How long will an inter-country adoption take?
  • Do I have to formally adopt my child in the US even if the adoption is finalized in the foreign country where she was born?
  • I'm 55 years old. Is there an age limit on who may adopt a child from a foreign country?
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