by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Raise your hand if you ever felt like running away from home.

Raise your hand if you ever felt your parents ignored you.

Raise your hand if you ever felt you’d rather live with another family, one that had more fun and more money.

Hmm. A lot of hands. Now consider what happened in a Florida courtroom last week: 12-year-old Gregory Kingsley was officially “divorced” from his natural parents and awarded to foster parents — one of whom happens to be a lawyer who helped represent the boy in court.

“I just thought (my mother) didn’t care anymore,” the boy said on the stand.

It was the first case ever where family rights were ended by a child’s legal action.

It also sets an incredible precedent.

On the one hand, young Gregory has a sad tale. His father long ago abandoned him. His mother, an unemployed waitress, had given him up three times for foster care. He barely lived with her the past eight years, and witnesses testified she was promiscuous, smoked marijuana, and got involved with bad men, at least one of whom beat her.

On the other hand, she is still his mother. She claimed lack of money was the reason she put her boy in foster care. She said she still wanted him to be her son. The judge said no.

He is someone else’s son now. How to judge a “happy” home

Our knee-jerk reaction is probably this: The boy is better off in his new home. The couple that adopted him, George and Lizabeth Russ, are upper-middle-class Mormons; they have eight children and a supposedly happy environment. And they have money. When the judge gave his decision, the Russes hugged their new “son” and gave him a baseball cap and a specially embroidered shirt.

Witnesses felt warm all over.

They shouldn’t. Because the new family should have nothing to do with this decision.

I find it very dangerous to fall in love with the idea of taking a child from his natural home and putting him in another simply because it seems happier. First of all, things are not always what they seem. Second, if we are to judge the worth of families strictly on the basis of alternatives, we would be splitting up half the country. There are countless poor, dysfunctional homes out there, and plenty of rich, happier ones that might open their doors.

Also, let’s remember that while the idea of kids “divorcing” their parents may be fine from a children’s rights point of view, few, if any, children are going to go out and hire a lawyer themselves. There will almost always be an adult involved.

Which raises the question of motive.

How many of us, even innocently, have remarked on someone else’s parenting techniques? How many of us have privately thought we could do better?

Now, after the Kingsley case, it may strictly be a case of convincing a child of the same thing — and getting him or her a lawyer. You can see the potential problems. A rich, religious family, seeing what it feels is a poor, godless home, deciding to take matters into its own hands.

“Would you like to live with us?” the family might ask one of the children. “You can, you know . . . ” Not everyone should be a parent

The only important issue in the Kingsley case is the boy’s natural home: Is it safe? Is it positive? Does the child have a chance to grow up without undue problems? And, by the way, money is not a measure of this. Poor people do not have less rights to children than rich people. Kingsley’s natural mother raised at least one good point in the trial, when she asked why our government will help pay for her son’s foster care with other people — yet wouldn’t give her the assistance she needed to raise the boy herself?

Now. I am not saying that in this case, a good move wasn’t made. It probably was. But I am saying we must be terribly careful about playing God and deciding who is a worthy parent after a child is born.

If you ask me, we’d be better off taking the money spent on lawyers and trying to educate people about being a parent before they give birth. Remember that scene in the movie “Parenthood,” when a teenage son bemoans his abusive father. “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car or catch a fish,” he says, “but they’ll let any (bleep) become a parent.”

Sad, but true. And that’s the real problem. So before we hop in the sack to make some babies, maybe we should ask ourselves at least these questions:

1) Are you willing to part with most if not all of your money?

2) Are you willing to be responsible even when you don’t feel like being responsible?

3) Are you willing to put yourself second in every aspect of life for the next 20 years?

If you can’t answer yes, you’d better think twice. Otherwise, you might find yourself in court someday, being divorced by your kids.

And they might win.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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