'Birth parent' isn't any guarantee, in life or in court


August 20, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Unless I'm wrong, many of you either are parents or have had parents. So you know the truth without me telling you: There are lots of rotten parents out in the great wide world.

Some abuse their children.

Many don't seem to have enough time for them.

Others simply drive their children crazy. As any Mercedes-driving Freudian analyst could tell you, parents basically fuel the psychiatry industry.

And, as we know, virtually anyone can have a kid. You don't need a license. You don't need training. All you need is two people who answer the age-old urge, and, surprise, nine months later you're up to your ears in nappies. You don't even get an instruction manual.

Parents with the best of intentions struggle bringing up baby. That's OK. You owe the struggle to your kid. Bringing a defenseless child into the world is a kind of social contract -- or should be. You do everything in your power to ensure a good life for the kid. The kid's only obligation is to grow up healthy and happy.

Most parents do their best. Many do not.

The point is that just being what is now called a "birth parent" hardly guarantees that person will be a good parent. Which brings us to Kimberly Mays, the 14-year-old who was switched at birth and who, for years, had to fight off her birth parents in court.

The court has ruled in Kimberly's favor. And I can now see birth parents' rights groups demanding: What about us?

Well, what about them?

In the Mays case, the birth parents persisted in trying to be part of Kimberly's life even though their efforts were clearly causing her distress. Whose interests did they have at heart? Isn't the idea to do what's best for the kid?

That was easy enough in the Mays case, which was so unusual and also fairly clear-cut. She had known one family for 14 years. She seemed happy in that family. Biology somehow didn't seem so important.

In the other recent case in which sets of parents were seen fighting over a child, biology was everything. As you'll recall, baby Jessica, at age 2 1/2 , was returned to her birth parents, who had gone to court to overturn Jessica's adoption.

In this instance, it was hard to figure who was right. My hunch was that both sides were wrong.

The adoptive parents fought the birth parents for more than two years in court despite their understanding that, if they lost, the longer the case went the greater the potential trauma for Jessica. And the birth parents, even as the case dragged, were willing to risk whatever trauma Jessica might suffer.

This was an ownership trial, as clearly as if they were fighting over a piece of land. Or a head of cattle. Jessica belonged to somebody, and the court's only interest was to determine the proper owner.

Didn't Jessica have an interest?

The rule is that children's interests are not important. Children are, as in the old saw, to be seen and not heard. And yet, parents routinely fail their kids, and we, as a society, rarely even blink.

I'll give you an example that is as horrible as it is believable. You probably heard about the case in Oklahoma of the two boys who blew their father's head off with a rifle. They were 15 and 12 and had long suffered physical and mental abuse from their father. When the father starting abusing a younger sibling, the boys killed him.

They had to kill him because no one ever thought to take these abused kids from the father, the biological parent.

Neighbors had reported him to social services. His own sister had reported him.

Nothing was ever done.

When the father and mother were divorced, the father got custody, leaving one to wonder what the mother must be like.

From all accounts, the father was a drunken gun-lover who fired his guns at will. According to the boys' adult brother, he forced the children to steal -- just to see the fear in their eyes.

Maybe the boys will be exonerated for killing their father. But they won't be free. They'll have to live with what's been done to them.

Most cases aren't this dramatic. But we've all seen instances where judges put families back together after children have been removed from the household because of parental abuse. Families belong together, the judges say. Biology is destiny.

The ruling in the Kimberly Mays case says other factors might be considered, including the welfare of the child. Is that really such a radical concept?

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