Baby Byron Turns 18
In the 1990s, the “Baby Byron” case exposed the nation to Allegheny County’s child welfare system—and one family’s ultimately unsuccessful battle to complete a cross-racial adoption. “Baby Byron” turned 18 in July. And his story is far from over.
It’s 90 degrees as we sit in front of the main Carnegie Library branch in Oakland at a decaying picnic table. Byron Griffin gives a peripheral glance to his left and right, then behind him before something catches his gaze in the distance, toward the Cathedral of Learning. He’s lost in thought for a moment, standing there, and in the brief pause, I try to size him up.Big future plans: Byron Griffin, 18, hopes to make music and films for a living. “I want to be famous,” he says.
This is “Baby Byron” at 18. This is the young man whose adoption case brought Allegheny County’s child welfare system into the national spotlight almost two decades ago. This is the young man whose tragic circumstances led to a book and countless newspaper articles and television reports about cross-racial adoption. He’s black, 5’8”, maybe 200 pounds and wearing baggy shorts and unlaced basketball shoes. It’s clear he hasn’t cut his hair in a while, and it’s beginning to grow into a full Afro. There’s a calmness about him, until he shakes his head slightly and wipes his brow in the oppressive heat.
“Everything all right?” I ask, wondering what had caught his attention.
“It’s nothing,” he says. He stares for a second with his lips pursed, brow furrowed. Then he looks away and breaks into a bright and inviting smile. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”
We talk for a while, and he tells a story. When he was a toddler, he remembers playing in the sand on a beach. He remembers thinking that he had been brought there to see the ocean, to bask in the sun with his family. He remembers it well—the clear sky, the bright sun, his white foster parents and his three white foster siblings. He remembers their smiling faces, their beach towels and the toys they brought along for the trip from Pittsburgh’s north suburbs. He remembers thinking this was a vacation—or as close as possible to what a toddler can perceive as leisure or free time. Then things changed. The change was in mood more than anything else, he says, recalling it as “uncomfortable.” Press cameras showed up, and he remembers a swarm of people that seemed to appear out of nowhere to take pictures of him and his family. He was picked up and held to his foster mother’s chest as she spoke to the press.
Bird without feathers
Byron was born at Mercy Hospital July 15, 1992, two months premature and addicted to cocaine and heroin. His mother, Lashawn Jeffrey, was 24 at the time, and she had a history of prostitution and drug use. Thirteen months prior, Lashawn had given birth to Byron’s sister, Byrae Griffin, who had also been born addicted to drugs. Byrae was rushed to a hospital weeks after her birth in serious condition due to malnutrition, so when Byron was born, officials at Allegheny County Children and Youth Services (CYS) took notice.
Meanwhile, Mike Derzack lived in a different world. First of all, he was white, and he had a wife and three children all living under the same roof, while Byron and Lashawn were part of a family that had been scattered throughout the city due to drug problems and run-ins with the law. Mike raised his family in Franklin Park and then Pine Township—quiet suburbs north of Pittsburgh better known for harboring peaceful housing developments than violent neighborhoods where heroin and cocaine were dealt openly on streets.
But the connections between Derzack and Byron, Byrae, and Lashawn became closer when officials from CYS determined that Lashawn was unable to care for her newborn child.
Derzack and his wife, Karen, had signed up to become a foster family earlier that year. Already parents to two adopted children and one child by birth, they agreed to care for foster children during short periods of time—weeks or months—as CYS arranged adoptions or reunifications with birth families. Though Karen would later tell reporters that the Derzacks hoped to use foster parenting as a way to adopt children of their own, it was understood that the Derzacks’ role as foster parents was to care for children either until birth parents were in a better position to support their children or until suitable adoptive parents could be found.
When CYS notified the Derzacks that a young black baby had been born addicted to drugs and was in urgent need of foster care, they hesitated. “The newborn who was addicted to cocaine and heroin had no sense of self,” Mike would later write in “Bird Without Feathers,” the nonfiction book he published with his wife and a coauthor in 1994 about their eventual battle to adopt Byron.
In the book, Mike recalled reading a pamphlet about caring for drug-addicted newborns and being concerned about his inexperience with drugs and withdrawal. There was also the issue of race. “I hadn’t known any African-Americans when I was growing up,” he wrote. “And I had never been very close with any black person.”
Mike and his family eventually put aside their reservations and agreed to care for Byron. Mike often worked long hours at his successful print shop in downtown Pittsburgh, but Karen was not employed outside the home at the time, and so just six days after Byron’s birth, she was able to organize around-the-clock care to help the infant overcome severe withdrawal symptoms. The title of the Derzacks’ book comes from a conversation Mike and Karen had after their first encounter with Byron: “He looked like a bird that had been pushed out of its nest to die.”
The Derzacks nursed Byron to health. In Nov. 1992, Byron Griffin Sr.—Byron’s and Byrae’s birth father—died in an automobile accident. Byrae still lived with Lashawn at this time, and Byron stayed with the Derzacks. But in December of that year, for reasons that remain unclear, CYS employees showed up at the Derzacks’ door, without warning, intending to take Byron to a new home.
Mike admitted that he took the news defiantly, refusing to release Byron without a court order. In their book, the Derzacks quote a phone conversation with CYS’s director of services, in which Mike asked why Byron was being taken away. After pointing out that she had no obligation to tell the Derzacks anything, the director explained, “We put black babies with black families”—a representation, according to the Derzacks’ book, of CYS’s bold stance against cross-racial adoption. Mike contacted every media outlet he could think of: KDKA, WTAE, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and others. And the media arrived the next day when CYS showed up with a court order and police backup.
“The best I can correlate it to is what you see on TV,” Mike told the Associated Press in Dec. 1993. “Cops coming in on a drug raid.” Common Pleas Judge Joseph A. Jaffe, who oversaw the case, decided that CYS would not be allowed to move Byron on the basis of race alone, and his order allowed the Derzacks to retain custody of Byron. But not for long.
A new home
Byron’s mother, Lashawn, entered an East Liberty drug rehab facility in April 1993, nine months after she had given birth to Byron. She did this with CYS’s support—an indication that the department’s placement goals had shifted from finding a black adoptive family for Byron to reuniting him with his mother and his sister. Byrae lived with her mother at the East Liberty rehab facility, and, by Dec. 1993, Jaffe ordered that Byron, too, would be relocated there. CYS was to retrieve Byron from the Derzacks on Dec. 28.
The consequent events pushed the Derzacks, Byron, Byrae, Lashawn, and pretty much anyone even remotely related to them through intense public scrutiny. It took years for the events to play out, but the gist is that Lashawn eventually relapsed into drug use and the Derzacks gained custody of Byron and Byrae in 1994. After 18 months in the Derzacks’ care, Byron and Byrae were removed from the Derzacks’ home. Both children—who by 1996 were four and five years old—were placed with a black couple, Dolores and Ozias Shumba, who lived in Highland Park with their three children by birth. The Shumbas applied to adopt Byron and Byrae. The adoptions became official later that year, and Byron and Byrae took on new legal names: David and Veronica Shumba.
Jaffe had moved to a different court by this time, and the case was transferred to United States District Judge Donald J. Lee. In a Nov. 18, 1996 opinion, Lee wrote an opinion barring the Derzacks from contacting Byron and Byrae. In 2000, Mike would report to federal prison at the Federal Correctional Institute at Morgantown, W.Va., to serve a sentence for tax fraud—one of many issues that played out publicly. And by the time he got out in 2002, a decade after Byron’s birth, it seemed the story had ended, and the Baby Byron case was a memory.
The Search for Byron
But it didn’t end.
In 2004, Dolores Shumba says she contacted the Derzacks because she “wanted [Byron and Byrae] to know that there were people who loved them outside their home.” She approved visits with the Derzacks and allowed the Derzacks to spend money on Byron and Byrae, and to take them on excursions to Chuck E. Cheese’s. She soon regretted the decision.
The Derzacks filed a petition in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to gain custody of Byron and Byrae via in loco parentis status—a legal doctrine that the Derzacks hoped would allow them to assume parental rights, duties, and obligations over Byron and Byrae without going through the formalities of a legal adoption.
According to Judge Randal B. Todd’s opinion in that case, the Derzacks claimed that they had given Byron and Byrae “gifts of bikes, clothes, shows, and money,” and further alleged that “the condition of the Shumbas’ home was not adequate to accommodate the number of people living in the home.” The opinion says the Derzacks doubted the Shumbas had adequate resources to provide properly for the children. In his opinion, Judge Todd wrote, “[W]hile the Derzacks may have purchased some meals, clothes, haircuts and other gifts for the children, this does not constitute the assumption of parental duties.” The Derzacks’ petition to gain custody of Byron and Byrae was again denied.
Four years later, in 2008, communication between the Shumbas and the Derzacks had ceased, seemingly for good. So it came as a surprise to the Derzacks when Byron began calling the Derzacks’ Pine Township home.
According to Byron, the first call occurred in December 2008, after a conversation with his pregnant 19-year-old girlfriend (who asked to remain anonymous in this story). They were in her apartment—a one-bedroom on the second floor of a complex in the Knoxville section of Pittsburgh—and the topic was money.
Aside from an occasional job working for his adoptive brother, Byron didn’t have many work prospects. He had dropped out of Peabody High School and had left his adoptive home a year earlier, he says. He says he mostly made money by selling drugs and doing “enforcement” work for gangs operating in Homewood and Garfield.
But he had recently gotten out of that life and says he wasn’t involved in gangs anymore. He wanted to make music and films for a living; he had dreams. He was also concerned that he and his girlfriend would be unable to care for their newborn child if he had no source of income.
Byron’s girlfriend suggested Byron contact the Derzacks. “You know they’d give you money if you asked,” Byron recalls her saying. He said he told his girlfriend, “I’m just not gonna do it.” But she eventually won the argument, and he called the Derzacks, who agreed to come over to her apartment. According to Byron, the Derzacks arrived on a Sunday afternoon in January 2009 and Byron’s girlfriend invited them in. They talked about the baby, but also about movies. Byron wanted the Derzacks to help him purchase a camera and other equipment so he could pursue a filmmaking career. After about 30 minutes, the Derzacks left. But on their way out, Mike observed something that gave him and Karen pause: A 9mm pistol on Byron’s kitchen counter.
The Derzacks declined to be interviewed for this story. As Mike said over the telephone in September, “We talked about it and thought about it. We’ve decided that we’re not going to participate. We just feel it’s time to move on.”
Last year, however, Mike provided a letter he sent after his most recent visit with Byron. The Jan. 16, 2009 letter was addressed to local officials—including Pittsburgh’s Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Marc Cherna, director of the Department of Human Services for Allegheny County. It claimed that Byron had “been abandoned by his adoptive parents.”
“[Byron] has no legal source of income,” the letter states. “He has a pregnant girlfriend. He is being evicted from an apartment where he is staying. They have little if any food to eat, and he has called us numerous times to have us send food in.”
The Shumbas, who had moved to St. Marys, Kansas, in 2008, denied accusations that they had abandoned Byron. Hearings ensued. And because those hearings were in juvenile court, the records are not public. While it’s difficult to know what happened after the Derzacks sent their letter, one thing is clear: Byron—who was 16 when the letter was sent—was told that he would either have go to live with his parents in Kansas or be placed into custody. He chose Kansas.
Dolores Shumba says her family’s move to Kansas was inspired by faith. The Shumbas are members of a “traditionalist Catholic” faith established by the Saint Pius X Society, which operates a K-12 school and religious college in St. Marys. Both she and her husband knew people in the church and wanted to study there. As to why they would leave their 16-year-old son in Pittsburgh, she explains that Byron had already left the Shumbas’ home by 2008, and “showed no interest in being a part of our family.”
She said that when Byron initially left the Shumbas’ home in Highland Park, she reported him missing to police. He was soon located, but he told officials he didn’t want to live with the Shumbas any longer, she says. The officials did nothing, she says, and Byron continued to collect a monthly stipend from Allegheny County. She says she asked county officials to stop sending Byron monthly checks, but they refused.
“They said it was better to keep paying him,” she says. Officials at Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services declined to comment on the case. Dolores also says that Byron’s adoptive brothers are still in Pittsburgh, “so if he had any serious problems, they would be there to help him.” Byron disputes the claim that he kept all the county’s support payments but is adamant that he considers Ed Shumba to be a father figure. “He’s been there with me. He’s taught me more than just about anyone I know.”
Byrae, who has graduated from high school, lives in Kansas with the Shumbas.
Byron mumbles when he talks, and his sentences tend to trail off at the end. So as we sat in front of the Carnegie Library, he gave this overview of his story. He remembers certain aspects of his time with the Derzacks when he was a toddler: the scene on the beach; living with the family in their suburban home; and a little about their lives and his life at the time. But his memory gets clearer about when he and Byrae moved in with the Shumbas.
He was five then, and Byron explains that he and his sister were given new legal names, David and Veronica Shumba. He prefers to go by Byron, while Byrae goes by Veronica.
He said he and his sister were born just a year apart, to a mother hooked on crack, who was working as a prostitute at the time of both of their births. Byron brings it up because some of his first memories of interactions at elementary school revolved around having to defend himself and his sister from bullies. He assumes parents of fellow students had read about and seen television coverage of the Baby Byron case and had told their kids.
Byron attended predominantly black schools and said fellow students made fun of him, not only because his birth mother was a prostitute, but also because he was raised by white people from a young age. He said he and his sister were too young to have answers about the things kids were saying, so he often resorted to violence. He said his teachers, too, weren’t shy about asking questions about his early life.
He tried his best to shed the Baby Byron image for much of his childhood. To compound that, he remembers that the Derzacks would approach him and his sister and the Shumbas’ kids on the streets in Highland Park with unsolicited presents. He says this confused him. On one hand, his adoptive parents didn’t have enough money to buy him new clothes and toys, so the Derzacks’ gifts and attention seemed fine.
On the other hand, being caught between two families did not help him adjust to his place in life.
Byron remembers having trouble in school. He had anger problems, he says, and his teachers would ignore him in class because they thought he was uninterested in learning. He got into gangs, sold heroin and started fights. He says he stopped going to school in the ninth grade and was officially kicked out of Peabody High School sometime after that.
Now that he’s 18, Byron plans to remain permanently in Pittsburgh. But without a job or a formal education to speak of, he’s unsure where to go or what, exactly, to do. He says he’s been approached by hip hop promoters who say he can turn his story into a money-making act, but he doesn’t know if that’s the best direction to go. He says he writes screenplays and hopes that someday he can turn his own story into a movie he can be proud of.
“I want to be famous,” he says, breaking into his bright, inviting smile. After a moment or two of silence, Byron looks down at his son, who’s strapped into his stroller, calm and staring off into the distance. His little legs kick every now and then, but he doesn’t make a sound. “What do you think of all this?” Byron asks me. I’m at a loss to answer.
Perhaps the closest thing to an answer to Byron’s question that I’ve heard didn’t come from Dolores Shumba, from reading the Derzacks’ book, or from Byron—but from Joe Jaffe, the former judge who initially oversaw Byron’s case.
Jaffe has had an interesting voyage of his own. He served on various courts in Allegheny County and then did some federal prison time for extorting $13,000 from a lawyer in 2003. He says his prison time allowed him to reexamine his life and think back on cases like Byron’s that must seem so intensely convoluted to outsiders. He says the Baby Byron case is certainly unique for the publicity that it attracted, and the pedestal that it afforded to various activists who felt strongly one way or the other about cross-racial adoption. But he says what’s most interesting is not what makes this case unique, but what makes it common.
“Kids are abused and neglected, and kids are born cocaine-addicted. Regardless of what kind of home you may find for them, they may be scarred forever.”
The evidence shows, he says, “that [these kids] have trouble concentrating, that they have trouble in school,” and that when their education is affected, their opportunities to be successful in life decrease.
“It’s hard enough in today’s society as a middle-class parent to deal with all the things that can happen to your child,” Jaffe says. “Whether it’s divorce or separation or drug addiction or alcohol or violence, it’s really amazing that things are as good as they are. But I think people in situations like I was in make decisions and keep their fingers crossed and hope that the kids end up all right. And maybe that’s all we can do.”