Nature and Nurture in Context

July 05, 1994

Three years may not seem a long time to a restless young man trying to settle into adulthood. But to an infant, three years xTC is an eternity. Therein lies the problem with assigning more legal weight to the rights of biological parents in adoption cases than to the best interests of a child.

A recent decision from the Maryland Court of Appeals weighed the question of nature versus nurture and issued a ruling that sends an important message: Being a parent involves more than a biological tie, more than seeing your own likeness when you look at a child. Parenting is a day-to-day responsibility, not one that can be set aside or assumed, depending on how life is treating you.

The case involves a 3-year-old boy, raised since birth by an Anne Arundel County couple. His biological parents had lived together briefly, but the relationship ended soon after the mother learned of the pregnancy. She made plans to have the baby adopted, and the man registered no opposition until the day before his right to file an objection expired -- the month after the child's birth. He hired a lawyer and pressed his case, arguing that his life has settled down, that he is a different person now and that, although he would "have a rough road" ahead, he wants to raise his son.

Those would have been admirable sentiments had he exhibited them several years earlier. Unfortunately, when the child needed him he wasn't ready -- and the people who were ready, willing and able to be parents have steadfastly fulfilled that role throughout the boy's young life. They are the only family he has known, a family in which he appears to be enjoying a happy, healthy childhood.

It did not escape the court's attention that the biological father has not endeavored to provide support for the boy, aside from two checks given to his attorney as contributions for the biological mother's medical expenses. The adoptive parents, who paid the medical expenses, say they were never offered the money. Moreover, the court correctly noted that contributions to a mother's medical expenses don't qualify as support for the child.

The case has been sent back to the lower courts where the adoption question will be decided. But with it, the state's highest court sent clear guidance that the controlling factor in these disputes should be the wide range of factors that determine the best interests of the child, not the rights of a parent whose only tie to a child is biological. Equally important, the court stressed the right of a child in an adoption proceeding to be represented by an independent counsel.

Nature vs. nurture -- it's an ancient debate in which courts have too often given biology the upper hand. With this decision, the Court of Appeals helps to frame the issue in a healthier context -- the best interests of the child.

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