MIAMI -- In a decision that could significantly broaden children's rights if upheld, a juvenile court judge in Orlando, Fla., has ruled that an 11-year-old boy has the legal right to sue for separation from his parents.
Judge Thomas S. Kirk held yesterday that the boy, identified in court papers only as Gregory K., has standing to request that all legal ties to his parents, whom he accuses of abandonment and neglect, be severed. Though a minor, the boy has the same constitutional right to protect his fundamental interests as an adult, Judge Kirk ruled.
Gregory K. filed suit in April seeking "termination of the parent/child relationship" so that he could be adopted by the foster parents with whom he has lived for the past nine months.
The boy's natural father, Ralph K., signed away legal claims to his son in May, but the suit is being contested by the boy's mother, a 30-year-old waitress, Rachel K., who said she gave up her son to Florida's foster-care system only because of poverty and with the understanding that she could regain his custody when her circumstances improved.
Yesterday's decision affects only the issue of the boy's ability to file the suit, and does not mean that Gregory K.'s adoption request will be granted automatically.
In nearly all cases, minors in Florida and other states must be represented in court proceedings by a legal guardian, who is supposed to act in the child's best interests.
Jane E. Carey, the lawyer for Rachel K., described her client yesterday as "devastated" by the decision, which Ms. Carey said was "totally amazing."
She said she planned to appeal but would not do so until the issue of the boy's custody is determined at hearings scheduled for later this year, probably in September.
"This is a dangerous ruling," Ms. Carey said. "I think we have opened a Pandora's box, and I hope and pray we can close it before it's too late."
Gregory K.'s foster father, a Leesburg, Fla., lawyer with eight children of his own who has handled many children's rights cases, has declined to allow the boy to publicly discuss the case, citing fears that the state of Florida would see the publicity as a violation of the foster-care agreement and remove Gregory K. from his home.
He described the ruling as "the right thing, legally and morally" and as "a great step forward for all children."
Judge Kirk based his decision on the Florida Constitution, which says that all "natural persons" are entitled to access to the courts and the legal rights that go with it, including the right to legal representation.
Because Judge Kirk's ruling is based on the state constitution, it is not clear to what extent the decision will have influence in other states.