Children and parental rights

June 15, 1993

If bad facts make bad law, the adoption dispute now pending before the Michigan Supreme Court is a legal nightmare. In this case, a girl now two years old has become a trophy in a fierce struggle between her biological parents and the psychological parents she loves as mother and father -- and between the courts of Iowa, where the child was born, and Michigan, where she now lives.

The biological parents hold the legal edge, since the father was deprived of a chance to claim or waive his rights when the mother wrongly named another man as father. When he learned the child was his, he immediately took steps to contest the adoption and has been declared a fit parent by the Iowa courts.

Many observers blame the adoptive parents for not turning the baby over then and there, but hindsight discounts the swiftness and strength of bonds between infants and their caretakers. Meanwhile, the adoptive parents have been winning the battle of the public heartstrings, in part because the biological parents are not particularly sterling characters but also because it is easy to understand that breaking the bond between the girl and her psychological parents at this point would be a devasting blow.

There is no good way for this case to balance the value this country's laws place on the right to be a parent with the needs of a child for strong and steady bonds of parental care and affection. One observer noted that were he the judge, the only thing he could do would be "to tear my hair out."

But if there is no good resolution to this heart-wrenching case, perhaps it can at least shed light on situations that are far more common.

Every day in Maryland, children entering the foster care system face disruptions in their lives equally as devastating as the one that may face that two-year-old girl in Michigan. All too often, those disruptions are not one-time changes, but prolonged uncertainty and a succession of foster care placements.

Adults may think that children should take these things in stride, but psychologists remind us that human emotions, especially in those tender years, simply don't work that way. Any disruption in the bond between caretaker and child -- even for a day -- is a major blow to a child, causing anxiety and fears that quickly show up in the child's demeanor and behavior.

In Maryland the Iowa-Michigan case should be an urgent reminder of the importance of services that shore up troubled families. If those efforts fail, then new, permanent homes should be found as quickly as possible. Yanking children around to meet the needs of adults or of bureaucracies takes a heavy toll on young lives -- a toll society will one day have to pay.

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