This article originally appeared in americanchronicle.com on July 9, 2006
I live in the fine state of Illinois. Here, in the Midwest, we like to think (or at least pretend) that we are sensible people. We like to believe we use our common sense quite well, thank you. I know that everyone all over the world likes to think that, yet it seems many times in course of human events common sense and sensibility take a back seat to other considerations. It’s for this reason that it seems such an extraordinary event when something happens that is sensible and well thought out.
Some time ago in my home state there was a highly publicized legal battle between the biological father of a little boy and his adoptive parents. Some of you may remember the case, as it garnered national attention. It was known as the Baby Richard case. For those of you familiar with the case, the following summary may bring back unpleasant memories of the images and sounds of this sorrowful case. For those of you not familiar, this summary is by no means a complete account and there is much more about it to be found on the Internet if you are interested.
Baby Richard was a child whose mother had given him up for adoption without the consent of the biological father. He was adopted four days after he was born and taken home. At the age of four his biological father decided he wanted Richard back. The father decided his parental rights had been violated and suddenly he wanted to tear his child away from the only family his son had ever known. In the ensuing court battle a ruling that Baby Richard’s father was an unfit parent (because he didn’t claim the child soon enough) was overturned by a higher court. Long story short, a wailing, distressed four year old Baby Richard was taken from his adoptive family and handed over to his biological father in front of news crews for the entire world to see. This was not one of society’s finest moments.
Several questions were left unanswered by this case, but there was one important aspect of it that most people agreed upon. The best interests of the child should be taken into account in such cases. It had become painfully obvious during the case that parental rights take precedence over the child’s best interests. In the wake of this case, the state of Illinois passed a law requiring judges to take into account the best interest of the child, or so I remember hearing.
Other states, however, have no such laws and have probably never even considered making such laws. Florida is one such state. I have a friend in Florida who has run into a legal brick wall because it is inconvenient for the courts to take the child’s best interest into account.
This friend of mine makes a fabulous mother. She has already raised two fine boys into adulthood. She was given custody of a two year old girl eight years ago by the state of Florida because the mother requested her. My friend and this child hit it off immediately. My friend fell so in love with this child that she has raised her without ever asking for a cent from the state of Florida. The child calls my friend “Mom”. She is the only mom this child has ever wanted. Florida never allowed my friend the opportunity to adopt this child. They never considered the love this child and her adoptive mom have for each other (and this child considers my friend her mom more than she considers her biological mother her mom). I suppose one always has a mother, but one does not necessarily always have a mom.
The state of Florida never even thanked my friend for the good job she did raising this child, who is right now a straight “A” student. They have instead admonished her and showered her with vitriol for fighting to retain custody of her daughter. She was even warned against going to the press citing privacy laws that could get her into trouble. This is why I will not mention her name. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting awfully tired of all this official secrecy in what is supposed to be a public government.
My friend has been ordered by the state of Florida and its courts to hand her daughter over to her biological mother. This is a ten year old girl who has only known life with one family, one mom, for eight years. She goes to live with a mother who has ten other children. The man her biological mother lives with has been accused of sexually molesting one of her older daughters. Yet it is into this environment the state of Florida – through its courts – sees fit to send this young girl. Never once did they ask this girl, a fully cognizant ten year old who knows her own mind, what she would prefer. Never once, do I believe, did the Florida courts take this girl’s best interests into account, for if they had they certainly wouldn’t be taking her out of a loving, caring home and putting her into a position where she’ll be lucky to get any kind of attention at all, except for maybe the kind she doesn’t want and a ten year old girl shouldn’t have to experience.
Perhaps it is too late for my friend and her daughter, but I write this to urge some action. I urge the Florida legislature to write into law something that makes the courts take a child’s best interests into account no matter what the legal position of that child’s current caretaker. A biological parent isn’t always the best choice for a child. There are cases where the person taking care of that child is a much better parent than the biological parent could ever be. I urge all states without such laws to write them. It’s time for the court system to stop playing games with people’s lives and start looking at what is best for those the system should protect.