ALBANY, N.Y. — A four-year adoption fight between jet-setting Manhattanites over an ailing and abandoned orphan from Cambodia is ending, at least for now, with the boy able to see the only father he's known.
New York's top court on Tuesday overturned the adoption by Johnson & Johnson heiress Elizabeth "Libet" Johnson, closing a case that wended through international law and involved what the adoptive father's lawyer called a "stealth adoption" by Johnson.
One of Manhattan's richest women, Johnson has been fighting over the adoption of the 7-year-old with her former lover, Dr. Lionel Bissoon, the one-time weight-loss guru to the rich of Manhattan, West Palm Beach and Beverly Hills.
"It means they will be able to have the father-and-son relationship they had since he was just a few months old and not have it cut off," said Bissoon's attorney, Bonnie E. Rabin. "The irony is that this child was orphaned and they tried to take away the only father he ever had ... this child loves his father."
The child continues to live with Johnson in her multimillion dollar Manhattan apartment, although the decision gives Bissoon legal standing he sought to see the child he helped rescue.
Richard A. Greenberg, Johnson's lawyer, said after Tuesday's ruling that he has several options, including taking the international case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, he said he could argue the federal question of whether New York had to respect the Cambodian government's decisions regarding one of its orphans.
The court referred to the privileged upbringing Johnson, a mother of four, is able to provide. She's a jet-setter who once reportedly dated bold-faced bachelors including actor Michael Nouri and singer Michael Bolton, while living in her $62 million triplex in the Trump Tower overlooking Central Park, according to a 2008 story in "New York" magazine. It quoted Johnson as seeing herself as another poor little rich girl like Paris Hilton.
But Johnson found her life's work in establishing the Golden Child orphanage in Cambodia to care for the huge number of abandoned children in the impoverished country.
The saga began in January 2003, when the child, then 2 months old with a heart ailment, was found abandoned in a village market. Johnson already had become a leader in providing Cambodian orphans new lives in the United States, and she and Bissoon brought the infant to Manhattan on a temporary visa for medical care.
The couple had hoped to adopt and raise the child together. But the United States had a moratorium on Cambodian adoptions to combat illegal trafficking. Bissoon, however, then claimed dual citizenship in Trinidad and Tobago, which had no moratorium.
Trinidad approved the request, but Bissoon found out too late that the country doesn't allow unmarried men to adopt.
At about this time, in August 2004, the romance was strained as they again sought to adopt the child through Cambodia's government. In December 2005, more fighting over differing approaches to raising the child ended the relationship.
A month later, Johnson sought a New York adoption for the boy, but didn't tell Bissoon. Johnson later acknowledged errors in her petition, first by erroneously calling it a "re-adoption" and then failing to disclose a recent stay in an alcohol treatment facility, according to court records.
Unopposed, the New York adoption was granted.
Then, eight months later, Bissoon found out about it.
A surrogate court, and later an appellate division panel, agreed to vacate the New York adoption, based in part on expert testimony regarding Cambodian laws. On Tuesday, New York's highest court agreed.
"We are satisfied that, under Cambodian law, (Bissoon) validly adopted (the boy) in June 2004," the state Court of Appeals stated in its 7-0 decision. Because of international law in which countries respect the acts of other countries, Bissoon also was recognized as the father under New York law.
Johnson argued that granting her the adoption is in the best interest of the child, who has lived with her almost all his life and who the court noted "no doubt thinks is his mother."
"The best interests of a child, important though they are, do not automatically validate an otherwise illegal adoption," wrote Judge Robert Smith. "The parental rights of a child's father cannot simply be ignored because a court thinks it would be in the child's best interest to be adopted by someone else."
Bissoon, who sought to force Johnson to accept that he's the child's adoptive father, doesn't plan to take him away from Johnson. The court, however, didn't have to decide how extensive Bissoon's rights may be if he were to try.
"That question," Smith wrote, "is academic, and we hope it will remain so."