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His financial situation was indeed grim. Two months before the twins were born, the company that managed his Los Angeles apartment sued him for nonpayment of rent, according to court records. A month later, he was sued by a collection agency hired by the management company (he eventually wound up paying a debt of more than $6,000).

But for all his stress—"I was having migraines," he says—Matt never did anything about setting up a plan to reimburse Ring for her medical expenses and fee. "Had he sat down with me and said, 'You know, Susan, I'm really screwed up right now,'" says Ring, "I would have worked with him." Instead she heard "foster care" and alarms went off. "The fear was that the twins would go to foster care and stay there forever. It was against everything I believed in."

Ring hatched a plan. "I didn't want to take the twins—I have a small house, and I have my boys," she says. "But if I could get parental rights, I could find a home for them with a mother and father who could adopt them." She grabbed her notepad and called Walmsley.

When it comes to reproductive technology law in California, Robert Walmsley is the guy to know. Married and the father of two, he has intense blue eyes and a confidence based on having personally argued some of the most important cases in the field. At the Santa Ana law firm of Van Deusen, Youmans, and Walmsley, where he is a partner, Walmsley devotes nearly all his time to a question that used to be simple, at least in legal terms: Who are a child's parents?

It was Walmsley who represented Crispina and Mark Calvert, the biological parents of a child carried by a surrogate who sued them for parental rights. In a 1993 precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court named the Calverts as the child's sole legal parents and terminated visitation by the surrogate.

Walmsley was also involved in a second key case involving a baby girl named Jaycee Buzzanca, born in 1995. Jaycee was the result of anonymous egg and sperm donors, a surrogate who gave birth to her, and John and Luanne Buzzanca, the couple who arranged it all. Shortly before Jaycee's birth, John filed for divorce and stated that he bore no legal responsibility for the child. About five months later, Luanne, who was busy raising Jaycee, hired Walmsley in hopes that she could be declared the girl's legal mother and obtain child support from her ex-husband. In 1997 the Orange County Superior Court declared that the baby had no legal parents at all, even though five people had played a role in her creation. But the decision was appealed, and Walmsley argued that by setting in motion the events leading to Jaycee's birth, John and Luanne had become her de facto legal parents. In a landmark 1998 ruling, the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed, stating that when individuals initiate medical procedures to create a child, a parental relationship is established. If there were any doubts that intended parents had predominant rights to a child in California, this decision—which is cited around the world—wiped them out.

It's hardly surprising then that when Ring called, Walmsley wasn't encouraging. The law, which he had helped to shape, was designed to protect intended parents. "He told me, 'There's no legal support in the cases established in the field to help you,'" she recalls.

Still, Walmsley believed Ring had been treated unfairly, and he was impressed by her concern for the twins. "She was sincere," he says. "I thought she was involved in a terribly unselfish act in assuming responsibility for the twins." He agreed to represent her.

"How do you handle a guy who, in theory, has an actual right to the children but who you believe isn't emotionally stable enough to care for them?"

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