On Psychology

Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 1998 /29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Problems Develop When Others Do Parents' Job

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I have been dating a wonderful woman and our relationship is getting serious. She is also the mother of a 3 year old daughter who lives with her grandparents in another state. Although I understand the circumstances that led to her having a child out-of-wedlock, I find myself unable to make a deeper commitment to our relationship without having laid eyes on her daughter or knowing what her future will bring.

There has been talk of the grandparents adopting the child. The daughter has lived with them all her life, and it is clear that they would be able to provide a stable home and upbringing. It would admittedly make things simpler for me if they were to adopt her, but I do not think I should press the issue with them.

Here's where some legal issues come into play. Apparently, in order for the grandparents to adopt, my girlfriend would have to run an ad in the newspaper where the biological father lives in an effort to find him. The last time she saw this guy was when she became pregnant, and she wants nothing to do with him. His name is not even on the birth certificate. She has also heard that he has tried to gain custody of his other kids, and that makes her even more wary of contacting him. Doing so would also result in her being considered a neglectful parent.

This doesn't make sense to me. My friend would be considered a neglectful parent by contacting this deadbeat sperm donor, while she is the one who only wants what is best for her daughter? Sorry if it seems like I have an attitude, but it is easy to get one with this situation.

A: As I see it, there are three options here. First, the grandparents could go forward with formally adopting the child. Second, everyone could leave well enough alone and allow the child to continue in this informal kinship care arrangement. Third, the biological mother could take on the responsibility for the care and upbringing of her daughter. My vote is for the third option. Here's why:

For a child to be adopted by her grandparents (or anyone else for that matter), the biological mother must relinquish her parental rights over the child. In many states this means the mother has to be declared "neglectful." Never mind if doing so is the most loving option, in the eyes of the law in many states by allowing an adoption to proceed, the mother is automatically considered neglectful of her motherly responsibilities. No wonder so many birth mothers feel ashamed when considering adoption for an ill-timed child.

But the legal requirements don't stop there. In order for an adoption to proceed, the parental rights of the biological father must also be terminated. Doing so requires that adequate notice be given to him that such a legal action is pending.

In many situations, this makes sense. You really wouldn't want a judge to terminate the parental rights of a biological father who is willing and able to take care of his child, especially if that father has been involved in the child's life all along.

On the other hand, there are situations in which it is reasonably clear that the best interests of the child dictate that a father's parental rights should be terminated. If, in fact, this biological father abandoned this woman as soon as he found out she was pregnant and then made no effort to establish a relationship with the child after she was born, I don't believe he should be allowed to interfere with an adoption 3 years later.

But that's not the law. The law says such a guy must be notified. And if he says, "Hey, I know its been 3 years, but now I'm ready, willing and able to be this girl's father," the law could very well be on his side.

So the risk of option one is, in my opinion, too great. The child needs a sense of permanency. Given the absence of any relationship with his daughter, that permanent home is not with the biological father. Consequently, if it were my grand-daughter, I wouldn't pursue the formal adoption.

I know that there will be some who will see this view as insufficiently "pro father." But in situations like these, I believe decisions should be driven by the best interests of the child. And given these circumstances, I do not believe it is in the best interests of this child to have her life disrupted 3 years later by being moved to a completely different home to be raised by a man who is a total stranger to her.

The second option, maintaining the status quo, has a certain appeal. The child is comfortable, the grandparents apparently don't mind keeping her, the mother seems fine with the arrangement, and it lets you, the boyfriend, off the hook.

But I am troubled by the fact that informal kinship care arrangements, such as this one, tend to lack permanency. What will happen, for example, if the little girl develops problems that the grandparents can't or don't want to handle? Will they then turn to their own daughter and say, "You're the girl's mother, you handle her!"

And what will happen if five years down the road, the mom has a change of heart and wants to take over the full-time care of her daughter? Will the grandparents agree, or might they resist? There's just something I don't like about that type of uncertainty.

Which brings me to the last option. It is unclear whether the child knows your girlfriend is her mother, but I am assuming she does. If so, I suggest the mother begin to slowly take over increasing amounts of responsibility for her own daughter with the goal of her eventually taking over her full-time care.

Will this be difficult? Certainly. But parenting is about self-sacrifice and responsibility, not ease or convenience. We, as adults, must start to place children back at the center of things.

Which brings me to you. You need to decide whether or not helping to raise this little girl is something you can handle. If not, and the mom takes my advice, you shouldn't consider a deeper commitment to this relationship. Marrying her before you have fully resolved this issue would be a big mistake.

Here's the bottom line: Children grow up best when they have a sense of permanency, a sense that their home is stable and lasting. Your girlfriend still has an opportunity to provide that kind of permanency for her daughter. I would encourage her to take advantage of that opportunity. And I would encourage you to support her in doing so.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn