A little boy is caught up in a high-profile tug-of-war between two families and two cultures. A parent wants him back, but politically influential adults say they can offer him a better life. This might sound like Elian Gonzalez, but instead it's the case all of Chicago was talking about last week: Baby T, the toddler taken from a drug-abusing black mother and given to a powerful white Democratic politician and his wife, a state court judge.
The Elian Gonzalez saga is a one-of-a-kind international showdown, but it's also part of a rising American debate over parents' rights. In Chicago birth parents are pitted against foster parents, and some blacks are charging the courts with racial insensitivity. In the U.S. Supreme Court this week, grandparents are squaring off against parents over the right to visit their grandchildren. Across the U.S., courts are being flooded with cases involving custody and visitation for homosexuals who have been estranged from the children they parented. At the heart of all these disputes is a wrenching legal and emotional question: Who should have the right to play a part in rearing a child?
Baby T, who will be four next month, was born with cocaine in his blood. His birth mother, Tina Olison, is a single mother with a 20-year history of drug abuse. Eight days after his birth, he was placed in foster care with Edward Burke, a powerful Democratic alderman, and his wife Anne, an Illinois appeals-court judge. Over the next three years, the Burkes bonded with Baby T, while Olison stopped using drugs and got a job.
Then the fighting began. Olison campaigned to get her son back, appealing to the courts' tradition of favoring birth parents in custody cases. But her more explosive claim was that the Burkes, who had baptized Baby T as a Roman Catholic, were not suitable parents for an African-American child. Olison accused the Department of Children and Family Services of discriminating against black families. A black South Side minister called on the Burkes to adopt a white child instead. The Olison camp's argument was much like Miami Cuban Americans' claim about Elian: a whole community should have a say in how a child is reared.
The judge hearing the case didn't buy it. What mattered, he held, was the parental ties that had formed between the Burkes and Baby T over nearly four years. The court increased the number of visitation hours Olison got, but it made clear that neither a frustrated birth mother nor an ethnic group should be allowed to tear the Burke family apart.
The U.S. Supreme Court this week will hear a similarly heartrending family conflict. Jenifer and Gary Troxel, whose son Brad committed suicide in 1993, wanted increased visitation rights with their two granddaughters. When the Troxels couldn't agree with the girls' mother, Tommie Granville, on the details, they sued, under a Washington State law that allows any nonparent to be awarded visitation when it's in the "best interests of the child."