The Best Interests of the Child?

SARA ENGRAM

June 20, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

We spout it like a mantra: ''the best interests of the child.'' But if we mean it, why does it so seldom show?

The question arises anew in a particularly painful context. Michigan's highest court is the latest venue for an adoption case that seems tailor-made to illustrate the muddle we make of children's interests.

In Michigan, a 2-year-old girl adopted at birth faces the real possibility of losing the only parents she has known and being handed over to the strangers who are her biological parents. It's a truism that bad facts make bad law, but the DeBoer-Schmidt custody tussle is proof. Asked what he would do if he were the judge, one child psychologist said simply, ''I'd tear my hair out.''

Columnists and other advocates have denounced rulings that have largely sided with the Schmidts, the biological parents. They see the case as proof that this country simply doesn't know what it means to consider the best interests of a child.

If that is true, then the problem goes bone-deep into our legal system. Like all hard dilemmas, the DeBoer-Schmidt custody case put two values in competition -- in this case, the right to be a parent without undue intererence from the state, against the best interests of a child. (''Best interests,'' of course, often means doing everything possible to keep children and their biological parents together.)

So far in this long-running battle, most of the legal decisions have favored Dan Schmidt, who was never given a chance to waive his parental rights. When he did learn he was the child's father, some three weeks after her birth, he quickly went to court to challenge the adoption.

Some observers blame the DeBoers for not recognizing at that early date that a contested adoption would not be good for anyone. Turning the child over then might have been terribly painful for the DeBoers and hard for the child, but nowhere near as difficult as it would be now.

Bonds between infants and their caregivers, and between adoptive parents and their children are quick to form. Interrupting that relationship is never easy, not at three weeks and not at two years. It doesn't help that the DeBoers seem to have been convinced that Dan and Cara Schmidt -- who were unmarried at the time -- were nobody's candidates for ideal parents.

That judgmental element is still a prominent theme in this case. Whatever the DeBoers' shortcomings, they present a better parental image than do the Schmidts. But as the Iowa courts determined, nothing in Dan Schmidt's history rendered him legally unfit for custody.

A bitter ex-wife had tried to prevent Dan Schmidt's visits with a son, now 16. But the son says his relationship with his father has become the most important bond in his life. A second child, a girl Mr. Schmidt says was the result of a one-night stand, surfaced when welfare authorities confronted him with demands for support payments. Until then, he says, he never knew of the daughter's existence.

True, this is not a sterling resume for parenthood. But, in the words of the Iowa Supreme Court, ''Courts are not free to take children from parents simply by deciding another home offers more advantages.''

Clearly, Dan Schmidt has a strong legal claim to the girl now known as Jessica DeBoer, a claim that cannot be trivialized without the risk of creating precedents that could endanger the right of families to be free of government interference.

That's fine for the adults, but what about the child's-eye view, a view in which two years is truly a lifetime? Psychologists speak loudly and clearly about the devastating loss this kind of change would represent to any child.

The DeBoers have played a high-stakes game. By stringing out the case, they have gained time, and time lends emotional weight to the argument that the best interests of the child demand that she be left with them. But the Schmidts argue that this would simply reward contempt for the law.

There is no easy resolution to this case, and there may be no good one. As bitterness grows between the two families, there may even be little chance for some kind of non-judicial happy ending. Can we dream of a legal victory for the Schmidts, followed by a magnanimous decision on their part to voluntarily relinquish their claim on the child?

It doesn't seem likely now. Listen closely, and little Jessica sounds less and less like a 2-year-old child and more and more like a trophy in a hard-won war.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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