Child Custody Battles

SOMEWHERE in Chicago a 3-1/2 year-old boy known publicly as ``Baby Richard'' lives with the only parents he has ever known, an adoptive couple identified simply as Mr. and Mrs. Doe. Elsewhere in the same city his biological parents hope the little boy will soon be legally theirs after years of a bitter custody dispute.

Last week the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus leaving intact an Illinois Supreme Court decision last June that voided the adoption. Both sets of parents have promised new legal moves, ensuring further uncertainty in the child's legal status.

Two families, one child, and legions of lawyers and judges, all trying to determine what is in ``the best interests of the child.'' How familiar this sad scenario has become as Americans have witnessed a string of wrenching child-custody battles, from the Baby M surrogacy case in New Jersey to Baby Jessica in Michigan.

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Baby Richard's biological father, Otakar Kirchner, lost every round in lower courts. After the Illinois Supreme Court overturned those rulings last June, state lawmakers, meeting in an emergency session, passed an amendment to Illinois adoption laws. It states that when an adoption is denied or revoked on appeal, a special court hearing must determine the best interest of the child.

Although lawyers for Mr. Kirchner charge that the new Illinois law seeks to undo a past court decision, laws of this kind could serve as one way of shortening custody battles. Another remedy might come through a proposed Uniform Adoption Act, which seeks to establish clear-cut adoption practices nationwide. Among other provisions, it would give a mother eight days after birth to revoke her adoption consent. After that, it would be irrevocable. The act, which some critics say exploits birth parents, would also set time limits for biological fathers to claim custody rights.

These baby cases, pitting surrogate or adoptive parents against biological parents, point up the perils of the slow pace of America's overburdened legal system. No one would ever argue for hasty or premature decisions. But when due process gets strung out over a child's formative years, change is clearly necessary.

Will Baby Richard grow into Preschooler Richard before the courts decide his future? Children, who are too often pawns of society, deserve stability and security. For a child above all, any delay of justice constitutes its own kind of punishment.

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