11-year-old sues to win a 'divorce' from his separated parents Citing abuse and neglect, Florida boy wants to stay with foster family.

April 21, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

TAVARES, Fla. -- Gregory K. wants a divorce.

From his parents.

This isn't the movies, where a poor little rich girl like Drew Barrymore pouts precociously as her Hollywood-gorgeous parents bicker about their marriage.

It's the sad life of a real 11-year-old Central Florida boy, who -- according to court records -- has been passed liked a hot potato from an abusive, alcoholic father to a neglectful mother, to a foster home, back to the mother, to another foster home, to a boys ranch and finally to another foster family.

Enough already, Gregory pleads in Case No. 92-839 in Lake County Civil Court. All he has ever wanted is "a place to be," Gregory once tearfully told a social worker, the lawsuit says.

The boy's attorney, Jerri Blair, says the bespectacled fifth-grader who likes to read is now making A's and B's in school and wants to stay with his latest foster family -- a couple with eight children of their own. They want to adopt Gregory as their ninth.

The biological parents say no.

Both the mother and the father, who are separated, are trying to regain custody of Gregory, who has been in the care of Florida's social service agency for nearly 2 1/2 years.

So in a lawsuit believed to be unprecedented nationwide, the boy is asking Judge G. Richard Singeltary to cut the legal cord that ties him to his mother and his father. For now, Circuit Judge Mark Hill has ordered the parents, whose two younger sons have also been in and out of foster care, to stay away from Gregory and his foster family.

Legal scholars and child advocates say the suit could become a test case on whether children have the same constitutional rights as adults and, if so, how to balance the rights of adults and children when the two collide.

"It's time we recognized that children are born with unalienable rights," said Tom Manning, executive director of the Lake County Boys Ranch, who describes Gregory as "exceptionally bright and mature."

One of the first questions will be whether the boy has the right to sue at all.

"We have a well-recognized constitutional right of the parents to control the custody of children," said Wendy Fitzgerald, an assistant professor of law at the University of Florida who specializes in children's rights.

What Gregory's suit could do is help "transform the legal view of a child from something akin to the property of parents to human beings with their own rights."

But Jane Carey, an Orlando lawyer representing Rachel K., the boy's mother, called the case a potentially dangerous precedent that threatens some fundamental family principles.

"This is shocking," Ms. Carey said. "Our whole thrust in Florida is to reunite the family if at all possible. Every child goes through a rebellious stage. If a child can choose his parents, then the parents should be able to decide and choose their children."

Ms. Carey described Rachel K. as "a working mother trying to keep her head above water in a country faced with a recession."

She said Rachel K. does not want to talk to the media. Ms. Carey refuses to discuss the mother's relationship with Gregory or any of the allegations of "abuse, neglect and abandonment."

"She is very intelligent, warmhearted. She's appalled and hurt that her son would be suing her. . . . She loves her child."

Ms. Carey suggests that Gregory's wish to divorce his parents stems from their socio-economic status. Gregory's parents, who separated when he was about 4, are struggling financially. Gregory told his foster family that when he lived with his father, they stayed in motels and sometimes slept in the car.

"Children are very materialistic," Ms. Carey said. "They want the person who can buy the Air Jordans to raise them. Everybody in America can't be rich."

But George R., Gregory's foster father and a lawyer himself, angrily dismissed Ms. Carey's argument as "ridiculous."

"Children do not want to divorce their parents because they want to get a Nintendo," he said. "They want to divorce their parents when there's a fundamental problem in the parent-child relationship."

George would not allow the boy to be interviewed. But he said he believes laws inappropriately favor parents over a child's best interests.

"We are not advocating that children should be able to choose their parents," George said, "but that they are persons protected by the U.S. Constitution. They have a right to pursue happiness. They have a right to competent counsel."

A separate legal process to determine Gregory's fate is already under way in Orange County Juvenile Court, the county just south of Lake. Jim Sawyer, an attorney for the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said he will try to get the two cases merged. HRS is named as a defendant in Gregory's suit, along with the boy's natural parents.

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