Janie Cheaney: Quasi-parenting

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. “Fundamental rights” and “best interests” are phrases you hear when talking about children. Here’s WORLD Radio commentator Janie B. Cheaney on priorities.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: One hot, August day in 1902, a farmer was walking beside the Iron Mountain Railroad in Washington County, Missouri. He paused when he heard the #4 approaching Big River Bridge. When the clatter and rumble of the train had passed, he heard a wailing sound from the river.

Climbing down to the bank, he noticed a small suitcase washed up in the shallows. The sound was coming from inside. It turned out to be a baby boy, about five days old, bruised and dented from his 50-foot fall off the train, but not seriously injured.

In time the farmer and his wife legally adopted the boy they had named “Moses.” William Moses Helms, the “Iron Mountain Baby,” went on to live a productive life that owed its beginnings to a providential interception and a straightforward adoption process.

Imagine the story updated, with a newborn baby girl left in the dumpster behind an office building after hours. The janitor finds her and takes her home to his wife.

Four years later, the couple have begun formal adoption procedures when the child’s father turns up, having learned about the baby long after the fact. DNA testing confirms his paternity. He wants his daughter, but the little girl has bonded with her adoptive parents. To make the situation more emotionally charged, the father is black and the foster parents are Hispanic. Who gets the child?

A “quasi”-parent is defined as someone besides the legal, or biological, parent who has greater rights than anyone else in a dispute with the legal parent. That would include grandparents who care for the child of a wayward daughter, a husband who bonds with his step-children, a foster parent, or any combination of extended family. Quasi-parenting, and the need for it, has always existed.

But with the rise of cohabitation, single parents, and same-sex parents, things get complicated, to a point where state courts are increasingly in the family planning business.

The Supreme Court has ruled on a quasi-parent situation only once, in Troxel v. Granville. There it confirmed the right of a widow to limit the time her children spent with their paternal grandparents. The legal parent’s right to make such decisions was “fundamental,” the court ruled, but the justices failed to set standards for application. As a result, Troxel has been cited in lower-court cases to come to opposite conclusions.

The fact is, a deep inconsistency lies at the heart of family law ever since the Supreme Court ruled that the right to abortion was also “fundamental.” Before, humans in the womb were understood to have rights; after, only best interests that were subject to adult interests even after birth.

That decision, in essence, threw the baby off the train. As long as it stands, family law will remain muddled and inconclusive.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

(Photo/Benniaofeiafei, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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