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Saving endangered children. Nurturing love, not new laws, needed to cement family ties

By CURTIS J. SITOMER / December 3, 1987



THE tragic tale of Elizabeth Steinberg is a story of child abuse in extreme. It is also a saga of a failed family - a family that started out with hurdles, without the benefit of a legal marriage, a family in which repeated threats and violence seemed to drown out nurturing and love. The victim was a six-year-old who was apparently beaten to death by her ``adoptive'' father. Actually there appears to be no record that Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum ever legally adopted Elizabeth (known to friends and neighbors as Lisa). Mr. Steinberg acquired the child from her unwed mother at birth - leading her to believe that he would arrange for an adoption to somebody else.

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Although there is some indication that Steinberg, a lawyer, meant to strike a deal for Elizabeth with a couple eager to adopt a child, he ended up keeping her.

The rest is history - years of beatings and abuse of Elizabeth and Ms. Nussbaum and regular calls to the police by neighbors and concerned friends.

The authorities came but no arrests were made - until after the child's death. Grand jury indictments are pending.

Meanwhile, as the saga unfolds, fingers are being pointed in all directions. Some say the police should have seen the ultimate danger to the child and removed her early from this tumultuous household. Friends and neighbors are berating themselves for not intervening more vigorously.

Others blame the ``system'' - the system that often allows children to be bartered between parties without government oversight. Those who are wary of independent or ``open'' adoptions are using this situation to demand that these options be outlawed.

And the debate over privacy is once again surfacing. When should authorities intervene in a family matter? Where children are involved, does state responsibility outweigh any parental rights?

This is far from the ideal case for arguing these broader issues.

The Steinberg-Nussbaum acquisition of Elizabeth was not an adoption - even if formal papers do ultimately show up. Actually, it wasn't even baby-selling, which in itself is a crime. Elizabeth's natural mother reportedly paid Steinberg $500 to take Elizabeth off her hands.

Could an ``open'' arrangement have prevented the tragedy? Sadly, not likely this one.

Advocates of adoptions in which all parties consult with one another, and professional counseling is usually involved, insist that this type of agreement is often a protection to a child who might otherwise end up in an endangered situation.

Bruce Rappaport, executive director of the California-based Independent Adoption Center, says that if Elizabeth's mother had access to a service such as his, the likelihood might have been greatly reduced that she would fall prey to an unsavory situation.

Rather than outlaw independent or private adoptions, Mr. Rappaport is pushing for state and federal legislation that would encourage carefully monitored child-placement arrangements.

This may also not be the best case on which to raise privacy questions. Child beaters and wife beaters have no constitutional right of privacy to carry on such villainous deeds.

Parents - natural or adoptive - are not shielded by the law if they physically abuse their children.

Families entrusted with the care of children, however, have the right, if not the responsibility, to guide them and to discipline them - obviously with a sense of love and care. These adults are also charged with providing moral and health education.

Should the state have the authority to intervene if this instruction runs counter to that generally accepted by the populace? Obviously not.

Privacy is protected when it speaks to individual conscience and moral choice. Such acts are not criminal and should not be viewed as such.

It is unlawful to offer children up in sacrifice. It is also criminal to physically or emotionally abuse them.

What happened to Elizabeth Steinberg was an abominable violation of law - and of human decency. It should not go unpunished.

The community, the public, should be outraged. Perhaps some legal remedies need to be pursued. But a rush to tough new laws and legislation - particularly those that would invade legitimate parental privacy - will not likely prevent similar acts.

A broader commitment to nurture children, love them more deeply - and respect them as individuals - is needed.

This might be the best tribute to a six-year-old whose plight has too late captured the hearts of a nation.

A Thursday column