DeBoer case reveals the nation's strong bias against adoption

December 29, 1993|By Mona Charen

MONTHS after the agonizing scene in which Jessica DeBoer was wrenched from her mother's arms and handed over to her biological parents, I am still receiving mail from people who want to know whether there is any hope of returning the little girl to the parents who raised her almost from birth.

Sadly, the answer is no. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case, and that slams the door on Jessica's legal options. One prays that Jessica is a resilient person who will bounce back from this early trauma in her life. And one prays also for Jan and Roberta DeBoer, who must bear not just the grief of losing a beloved only child, but also the particular sting of knowing that she is alive and (possibly) hurting.

Still, there may yet be some good to come of this tragedy, for the DeBoer case has shed light on the scandalous child welfare system in America today. What the DeBoer case revealed is that there exists in this country -- among judges, legislators and particularly among child welfare bureaucrats -- a persistent bias against adoption, and this bias traps hundreds of thousands of kids in foster care for their entire childhoods.

The belief that biological families are always best was Jessica's undoing. Iowa law permitted her biological father to own her despite the fact that he had known of the pregnancy and done nothing and that he had previously abandoned two other children.

The bias in favor of biology works against abused children as well. Believing that biological ties trump all others, social welfare agencies across the country keep abused and neglected children in legal limbo. If the biological parent (usually the mother) makes any effort to maintain contact with her offspring -- sometimes amounting to only one phone call a year -- that child will be classified as ineligible for adoption.

There are countless stories in the literature of children being returned to biological parents even after repeated beatings, scaldings and broken bones -- sometimes culminating in the child's murder at the hands of his father or mother.

To be sure, there is cruelty aplenty in the world, and we are powerless to prevent all of it. But the suffering of American children born to abusive or otherwise inadequate parents is highly remediable. There are thousands of families who stand ready, if the option were available, to open their homes and hearts to an adopted child. It is not a lack of loving families that keeps these foster children in a nightmare world of insecurity and hopelessness; it is a misplaced faith in biology.

Sure, it is nice to know one's biological roots (though it's important to remember that more of us are descended from horse thieves and beg-gars than from kings -- and the kings weren't so terrific either). But genetic history is not a child's most urgent need. Children need security, continuity, a sense of belonging and a loving, stable family more than they need a pedigree. It is more vital that a child be able to look to his mother than that he look like her.

And yet, in America today, we make adoption exceedingly difficult, and we make it almost impossible to sever the parental rights of people who do not deserve the title mother or father.

Solutions? There are many: 1) Sever the parental rights of people who habitually neglect or abuse their children. 2) Make the best interests of the child the guiding principle in custody cases -- pTC and, this is important, define that term to mean continuity of loving care, etc., and not necessarily placement with biological parents. 3) Change laws so that no one who lies (as Cara Schmidt did) is permitted to benefit from that falsehood. 4) Establish putative fathers' registries in every state so that fathers who wished to shoulder parental responsibilities would be notified in the event a child they sired was being placed for adoption. If a man was not listed, his rights would be treated as waived.

The DeBoer Committee for Children's Rights is a volunteer group working on many of these issues. They may reached at 1-800-4-R-Jessi.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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