LAKE CITY, GA. — Lake City, Ga.-- Driving down the gravel path, past houses with American flags on the front porch and Ford pickups in the driveway, you find Jeanette and John Murphy sitting under the shade of a gum tree. Lullabies from a child's recorder drown out the sound of car engines. Mrs. Murphy rocks 14-month-old Noah on a swing, while Cody -- a 2-year-old who loves music and green tennis shoes -- dances around his father.
A young family in a sleepy Southern town savors one of the last warm days of the season. That's the picture from a distance, at least. But to draw the Murphy family properly, you'd need a much larger canvas, one with room enough for 17 children, 13 of whom are adopted -- 11 with Down Syndrome.
You'd also need to illustrate somehow the heartache this family has faced: the children -- Rachel, Hope and Megan -- who have died of complications from the condition; the survivors -- Jimmy, Angel and Jeremy -- who have undergone open-heart surgeries, tracheotomies and amputations; and youngsters like Jonathan who now confront leukemia.
But most difficult, say the Murphys, have not been the surgeries, illnesses or setbacks. Most painful of all has been the custody battle for Cody, which put the Maryland natives in the national spotlight, making them the subject of talk shows, idle town gossip and tonight's CBS movie, "No Child of Mine." (It airs on WBAL-Channel 11 at 9 p.m.)
"I knew people didn't always understand our life," says Mrs. Murphy, 41. "I just never realized that we'd have to defend it."
That's what she and her husband have done since getting caught in the legal cross-fire between Cody's birth parents, who asked the Murphys to raise Cody, and his birth grandparents, who wanted to raise him themselves.
The Solomon-like struggle has made unwilling celebrities of the publicity-shy Murphys, whose lifestyle has been admired, debated and ridiculed in this suburb of Atlanta.
In one camp are those who see them as saviors, giving their home and their lives to disabled children, many of whom would be institutionalized otherwise. In the other camp are critics who question the Murphys' motives and ask whether this couple -- or any couple -- should raise 17 children.
"We're trying to be servants," Mr. Murphy, 43, says simply. "We're not trying to be the Messiah."
As he speaks, Jeanette Murphy sways gently, a subtle movement that hints of the time she spends rocking children in her arms. Mr. Murphy tosses a football to 8-year-old Brandon, whose knack for finding lost shoes, lost schoolbags and lost permission slips has earned him the family nickname "Mr. Find It."
There's much to entertain them around this nine-bedroom rancher on 2 1/4 acres: two basketball courts, a trampoline, a swimming pool, a shingled playhouse and volleyball net. There's even a separate slide (as well as a staircase) that leads to the basement.
It's after 3 p.m. and the school buses are dropping off the Murphy clan. Ten-year-old Angel, who's blind, comes home with Kool-Aid packs from school. Lindsey, 6, shows off her Halloween lollipop. And 14-year-old Christian, one of the couple's four biological children, heads to his bedroom in the basement to change out of his bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirt.
Cody, meanwhile, rides the swing in the back yard, gleefully oblivious to the maelstrom that has swept around him.
The war over Cody began in 1991, days after he was born with Down Syndrome. The Murphys were asked by his birth parents to raise him, but soon learned his birth grandparents were trying to intervene in the adoption. (The birth parents are raising Cody's twin brother, Casey, who does not have the condition. They still keep in touch with the Murphys and see Cody regularly, the Murphys say, although the couple has been hesitant to talk to the press.)
For nearly a year, the battle raged in the media and the courtroom, the crux of it being: Who had more right to the child -- his grandparents or the couple selected by his biological parents?
Ellen McCarthy, the birth grandmother, took her story to lawmakers and the media -- appearing on the "Montel Williams Show" and "Sally Jessy Raphael" -- and becoming an advocate (( for grandparents' rights.
"The Murphys had 16 children," she says. "We couldn't understand why they'd want a child that the grandparents wanted."
At times, accusations flew. In one newspaper article, the McCarthys' lawyer said the Murphys were "running a warehouse for children."
To fend off the suit, the couple spent $5,000 in attorney's fees. Mrs. Murphy lost 10 pounds, and Mr. Murphy found himself facing questions about why he gave up his job as a licensed practical nurse years ago.
"We ended up defending ourselves so much," says Mrs. Murphy, 41. "I felt like I never wanted to go out to the store because someone would walk up and say, 'I recognize you.' It was like someone was out to destroy what we were living for."
The family finances also added to the controversy. Neither of the Murphys works outside the home now. Instead, they cover expenses with monthly Supplemental Security Income checks (about $425) they receive for each of the disabled children; Medicaid covers their health care.
"People are always obsessed with the money," says Mrs. Murphy. "It's like they want to justify why you do this in a way they can understand."
Despite the stress, good news came in December of 1991. A Georgia court ruled that the McCarthys had no right to intervene in the adoption. Cody officially became a Murphy by year's end.
But the story itself didn't end there. Intrigued by the case, Lorimar Television had approached the McCarthys about making TV movie based on their experience and starring Patty Duke. Although the Murphys initially refused, they eventually agreed after receiving permission to read the script and suggest changes.
They decline to say what they were paid for their story, but Mr. Murphy points to the profits.
"Here's what it bought us," he says, walking toward a Chevy van with a bathroom, closet and VCR that seats the whole family. It's an improvement over their past mode of travel -- an airport shuttle bus.
They have seen the movie and like it, although they believe it's more fiction than fact. What they hope it does is help people understand their lives.
One person who still doesn't understand is Ellen McCarthy. Sitting in her home, just miles from the Murphys', she leafs through the hundreds of letters and cards from supporters of her cause.
She has not seen Cody since he was an infant, although she keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles about him and the Murphys. She points to one that describes how a church sent the Murphy children presents and food baskets around the holidays.
"That's my grandson," she says, pointing to the photo of Cody. "He's over there living on charity. Why do they want him if not for the $400 a month?"
But the question the Murphys are most often asked is simply, "Why?"
Why would a young couple with four biological children adopt 13 more, many of whom have serious physical and mental handicaps?
"I chose this life," says Mrs. Murphy. "It's the only thing I can ever imagine doing. The Lord gave us a gift. He gave us an enjoyment for doing this."
There's evidence around their home that religious beliefs guide their actions: the plaques with inscriptions from the Bible, the picture of Jesus in the kitchen, the cross earrings that many of the girls wear. But the Murphys speak hesitantly about their born-again faith for fear of being misunderstood.
Although they attend a Christian church, they don't force their teen-agers to go. And if their own lives are too hectic, they will occasionally miss services, a fact that doesn't always please the other parishioners, who notice when the Murphy clan is absent.
Little in their own lives prepared them for this. Mrs. Murphy, who grew up in Severna Park, was the middle child of eight, while Mr. Murphy, who was raised in Govans, was one of three sons.
The anti-establishment philosophy of the '60s helped form Mrs. Murphy's personal beliefs. She still considers missing Woodstock one of life's great disappointments. While she was attending protests in Washington, her future husband was dropping out of high school, being labeled a rebel and doing a short stint in the Marine Corps.
The couple met in 1974 while working at Bello Machre, a residential facility for the developmentally disabled in Glen Burnie. Two years later, they married and tried to set up their own home for the disabled in the area. When that failed, they moved to Virginia, working at centers there.
"We enjoyed working with adults. We just wished we'd raised them ourselves," says Mrs. Murphy.
In 1982, they contacted an agency in Washington about adopting a baby with special needs. Within weeks, they were asked to take 5 1/2 -year-old Shannon, a freckle-faced redhead with behavioral problems and Down Syndrome. Now 16, she has been one of their most difficult children. Tests have shown that she's the developmental equivalent of a 1-year-old.
Adoption networks quickly passed along their name to birth parents searching for couples to raise their children. And calls came from Virginia, Florida and other states.
The Murphys went on to adopt 16 more children, who now range in age from 14 months to 24 years. Although they never intended to have such a large family, they found it difficult to say no to caring for Down Syndrome children.
In 1987, the Murphys moved to Georgia so their growing family of 11 children (nine in car seats) could be near Mrs. Murphy's grandparents. Less than two years later, though, her grandparents died. Her parents and brother Steve, who have bought homes nearby, play an active role in the children's lives.
There are times when laughter is the only reaction to raising a family this large. When 11 children came down with chickenpox at the same time, Mrs. Murphy coped the only way she could: She had a chickenpox party.
During an average day, the family goes through three gallons of milk, two boxes of breakfast cereal and six loads of laundry. A bargain shopper and coupon clipper, she keeps grocery bills between $1,000-$1,500 a month. Although the house has 4 1/2 baths, the toothbrush holder in one bathroom was custom-made for 14 brushes.
Days start early and end late here. Mr. Murphy takes the breakfast shift, getting up at 6 a.m., while Mrs. Murphy finishes the day, usually around 1 a.m., after putting out clothes for the children who still need guidance.
The one family rule: The Murphys are never in a hurry. It's something they stick to even if it means missing their first plane to the "Sally Jessy Raphael" show.
"It's impossible to get through a mall," says Mr. Murphy. "Everybody keeps stopping you and asking, 'What school are you from?' "
They've learned to gracefully deflect the pity and curiosity that the public sometimes expresses.
During dinner at a steakhouse recently, their table stretched across the width of the room. As they sat down, diners put down their silverware to watch them.
"Look, every single one of them's retarded," said a man at a nearby table. "That's what I call loving and caring."
"What did you do -- raid an orphanage?" asked another as the family streamed out after finishing dessert.
Although such comments make them wince, they've learned to brush them off.
"I view everything in my life differently now," says Ms. Murphy. "I'm more accepting of people, especially since I see people who don't accept us."
On the drive home, Mrs. Murphy imagines where the children may be years from now.
"I think some of them will get married," she says. "Others, who can be semi-independent, will live on the property in a house we want to build. Angel will probably go to college, and Christian wants to be a lawyer. But what I want most is for them all to be happy. That's my dream, at least."