Rival Parents Clash Over Adopted Child
As in the `Baby Jessica' case, an Illinois dispute focuses on the legal rights of unwed fathers
IN a suburban Chicago backyard, a 3-1/2-year-old boy known publicly only as ``Baby Richard'' frolicks around a sprinkler or bats at a baseball, unaware of the legal battle raging around him.Skip to next paragraph
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But Baby Richard may have to leave the parents who have raised him since he was four days old, if an Illinois Supreme Court decision is upheld and custody is granted to the biological father he has never seen.
The case, one of about 500 contested adoptions in the United States each year, illustrates the tendency of US courts to give precedence to the rights of biological parents in adoption disputes without weighing potential harm to the child, according to legal and adoption experts.
``The courts place overwhelming weight on the rights of birth parents,'' says Elizabeth Bartholot, an expert on adoption at Harvard Law School.
The case also demonstrates the kind of bitter adoption struggle that can arise from the broad, yet ill-defined parental rights that have been granted to unwed fathers over the past 20 years.
Moved by the plight of Baby Richard and children like him, legislators in Illinois and other states have recently passed laws designed to prevent adoption disputes by clarifying the parental rights and responsibilities of unwed fathers. Some of the laws also grant consideration to the child's interests when disputes do arise.
On June 16, the Illinois high court invalidated the adoption of Baby Richard and ordered the boy returned to his biological father, Otakar Kirchner. On July 12, the court refused a motion by the adoptive parents, known in court papers as Jane and John Doe, to rehear the case.
The ``Does'' will ask the US Supreme Court to hear the case, says their lawyer, Richard Lifshitz.
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed two lower-court decisions in favor of the adoptive parents. Upholding Mr. Kirchner's parental rights, the high court determined that he had not shown interest in his son during the first 30 days of life as required by state law only because Kirchner did not know his child was alive.
Kirchner was estranged from his girlfriend, the boy's mother, before the birth. She moved to a home for battered women, saying Kirchner abused her, an allegation she later recanted. Soon after the birth, on March 16, 1991, she signed adoption consent forms and told Kirchner the baby was dead.
Two months later the couple reconciled, however, and Kirchner began a legal battle for his son. They married six months after the birth.
In its June 16 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court stressed protecting the rights of the biological parents ``wholly apart from any consideration of the so-called best interests of the child.'' In denying a rehearing, the court said that while the child will face ``initial shock'' when returned, ``this trauma will be overcome.''
EXPERTS say the court should not underestimate the impact on Baby Richard of such severe change. ``His world is the world in which he has grown up,'' says Denis Donovan, director of the Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry in St. Petersberg, Fla. Forcing the boy to leave his family would mean the ``total disruption and turnover of his world,'' Dr. Donovan says.
Partly to spare Baby Richard that trauma, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar (R) on July 3 signed a bill requiring a hearing to consider a child's best interests in custody proceedings when an adoption is denied or revoked on appeal.