Parents' rights, state's role - the child hangs in the balance

Six-year-old Melanie Lynn Sidote may never have heard of the United States Supreme Court, much less understand why she is a subject for debate by this august body.

Melanie is caught in a custody battle between her divorced mother and father. Until recently, she lived with her mother. But a Florida judge sent her to her father when her mother remarried. The mother is white and her new husband is a black. The high court wants to know whether the lower court's decision was based primarily on racial considerations. A constitutional issue (guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendment) could be at stake.

In another case, 12-year old Pamela Hamilton is all too familiar with the courts. This fall, the Tennessee youngster was removed from her parents' home by a juvenile court judge, who ordered medical treatment for a condition that was diagnosed as terminal. Pamela and her family had resisted this move on religious grounds. Her father is a fundamentalist preacher affiliated with the Church of God of Union Assembly. They said they wanted to trust God - not doctors - to heal Pamela. This case has not been appealed to the Supreme Court, but it may end up there. At issue are First Amendment freedom-of-religion protections pitted against the public responsibility for children's welfare.

There is a common thread in both cases: the question of balance among parents' rights, children's rights, and state jurisdiction.

Only in the past 15 years have children's cases surfaced as a prime concern of US courts. A 1967 Supreme Court ruling, the case known as In re Gault, started what is considered a revolution in rights of minors. It gave those under 18 access to due process in court proceedings, the right to legal representation , privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to be tried before witnesses who can be cross-examined.

The need for this seemed clear enough, particularly in the criminal area. But since then, in a variety of cases involving the interrelationships of parents, children, and the state, the high court's major themes often have been in conflict. The court seems to be saying: (1) Parents have the prime responsibility in the raising of their children; (2) But the state also has a special mandate to protect children; (3) Nevertheless, children have some rights of their own in respect to their families and the state.

In Melanie's case, the Supreme Court is not likely to make a basic determination about custody; what it is concerned about is whether ''race'' was a prime motivation in the lower court's decision. If so, the high court could bounce the case back to the lower court with the mandate that race be stricken as an issue and that custody be awarded solely on the basis of who is most likely to provide quality care for the child.

Pamela's case is more complex. Although the court is not bound by her wishes since she is a minor, her fervent belief in her parents' religious values must be taken into consideration, along with the family's convictions. The Hamiltons originally were charged with ''child abuse'' for refusing medical aid for Pamela. But if their actions were based on firm religious tenets, the state may have a difficult time proving abuse.

Of late, there has been growing concern among child welfare advocates that certain fundamentalist cults use the First Amendment and religious protections to shield from scrutiny their harsh treatment of children. There have been several indictments in which physical beatings have resulted in youngsters' deaths.

These are situations to be abhorred. Where the law is broken in relation to children, justice should be swift and fair.

In cases such as Pamela's, however, intervention really may be intrusion. Why should the state or lawyers or medical doctors be able to overrule the honest religious convictions of a family or individual? Why is the public sector better equipped than the family to decide what is in the best interest of a child?

These questions now are being raised not only by individuals but by civil liberties groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which are becoming increasingly concerned about public interference in private matters.

Ideally, neither of the cases mentioned should have come this far. The courts are not particularly well equipped to decide matters of this kind. The wisdom of Solomon is rare. And the entire judicial system is so overloaded that the wheels of justice by necessity grind slowly.

Constitutional questions are important and often must be litigated, not only to resolve today's cases but to set precedents for the future. But there are times when other solutions may well avert the judicial process. Melanie needs a loving and caring family more than a court hearing. And Pamela needs the care and compassion and prayers of a supportive society far more than her name on a court calendar.

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