A place for Gregory K.

July 28, 1992

An 11-year-old Florida boy identified as Gregory K. wants to sever the legal ties to his mother and father. In effect, he wants to divorce his parents.

His lawsuit, thought to be unprecedented in the United States, alleges he has suffered a lifetime of neglect and emotional abuse at the hands of his natural mother and father. Since the age of three, Gregory has been shunted about from his parents to foster families to state homes. He has even lived out of a car with his alcoholic father. For the past 2 1/2 years, the boy has been in the custody of Florida's social services department.

Gregory has told a social worker he only desires "a place to be." And so he has asked to be adopted by the foster family that, since late last year, has given him his first good home. His mother, claiming she's back on her feet, wants the boy back.

What makes this case so unusual is that Gregory and his attorney seek to assert that a child has a constitutional right to voice his preference in placement proceedings, rather than abide by the determinations of parents, judges and government officials. On July 9, a Florida judge agreed, ruling in a hearing that Gregory can have his day in court.

Legal experts wax uneasy over the implications of a victory for Gregory. They foresee kids trying to sue their parents for minor offenses, such as late-night curfews or refusing to shell out for the hot new brand of sneaker. These fears are overblown for numerous reasons, the main one being that any sane judge would guffaw such a suit out of court.

While we think it generally unwise for children to be able to sue their parents, we deplore the conditions that forced Gregory to take such an action. The tragedy is that the boy, like many a troubled child across the U.S., has had to wallow in the so-called "care" of the state without a reasonably quick resolution of his case. Whether the goal is to reunite a child with his family or to sever his ties to his parents and place him with a foster family, government agencies tend to work through these cases much too slowly. Last May, in fact, it was reported that Baltimore's foster children must wait at least a year before they can be legally adopted.

Granted, the bureaucracy is dense and the number of children requiring attention large. But the system must be better managed to ensure that cases move with greater speed. If a mother and a father need help to become the kind of parents who can adequately care for their own children, then they should get that help as soon as possible. The same expedience should be applied when the natural family seems beyond repair and a child must be placed with a foster family. Otherwise the result will be more and more Gregories crying out for nothing else but "a place to be."

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