Baby Veronica Returned to Adoptive Parents

Have we reached the end of the Baby Veronica story?   Last night Dunsten Brown gave up physical custody of Veronica (no longer a baby), allowing the Capobiancos to assume that role.   There’s no way of knowing if this is actually the end of the story.   Litigation could be continuing, as the article suggests.   But surely this is a significant moment.   Actual physical custody of the-now-four-year-old child at the center of a very long legal struggle has shifted to her adoptive parents, who presumably have taken (or will take her) back to South Carolina.

I’ve written about this many times before, though most recently not so much about the actual merits as about the nature of the on-going struggle.   It is this aspect of the case that continues to trouble me most.

Veronica (and at least all parties seem to agree on her name, unlike some cases where the child is given different names by the competing parties) is four year old.   For slightly more than the first two years of her life she lived with the Capobiancos (the adoptive parents).    Since New Year’s Eve 2011 she has lived with her genetic father, Dusten Brown, and his family.

This means that each of these families–the Capobiancos and the Browns–were there for major milestones in Veronica’s life.   The Capobiancos saw her roll over, sit up, take her first steps, and so on.  Brown heard her learn to talk and watched as she learned to dress herself and became a toddler.  (I’m guessing at who saw which things, of course, but you get the general idea.)

This is all the more reason, in my view, that Veronica needs both of these families.   To lose either is to lose that part of the past.   And while sometimes loss like that is inevitable, here it is not.   The families could both continue their relationships with Veronica, though obviously they cannot both exercise exclusive parental rights.

As I’ve said before, US law (and many other sorts of law I know) makes legal parenthood an all or nothing game.   One set of people here are legal parents–and that means that the other set has no established legal rights.   Indeed, it would be extremely unusual for a court to order visitation, say, with someone who was not a legal parent of a child.

There are two distinct problems that the all-or-nothing nature of legal parenthood exacerbates.  First, it’s a bit part of why people fight over parenthood so bitterly.  If the Capobiancos are the legal parents (and they are, at least for now) then they decide who Veronica sees, how she spends her time.  That’s one of the key rights of legal parents.   Brown, by contrast, has no right to insist on seeing his genetic child.  He appears as a supplicant–dependent on the good-will of the Capobiancos.    It’s not hard to see why with that prospect you would fight to be the legal parent–to have the right to make the decisions.

Second, once the (bitter) struggle is over (as this one might well be) there’s such a stark win/lose situation.   The Capobiancos have complete control over Veronica and Brown has none.   I’m afraid this may not help build Brown (and his family) into Veronica’s life in a meaningful way.    I don’t mean that it couldn’t and I don’t mean to criticize the Capobiancos particularly here–my recollection is that they were (and for all I know still are) willing to give Brown access to the child in some way.     But once the decision is made/final it seems to me that the all/nothing structure would tend to undermine the very idea that Veronica needs both relationships.   (I also wonder how it effects the story Veronica will be told about the first four years of her life.  Winners get to write the history, don’t they say?)

It easy to say that I dearly wish the parties here could have worked together from the get-go four years ago and found some mutually acceptable way forward.   Of course I do.   But I suppose my point here is that the law—the all-or-nothing nature of legal parenthood–doesn’t necessarily encourage that.   Perhaps it should.

Another thing easily said, I’m afraid.   The problem is that this restructuring of our understanding of legal parenthood would come at a high price.   Legal parenthood is structured as it is–in that all/nothing way–in order to protect parental rights.    Protection comes precisely because no non-parent can challenge the decisions of a fit parent.   Give someone else a formal legal voice and you undermine that idea.

Still, if’ I’m attached to the idea that the law ought to reflect reality (and I am), then maybe it ought to recognize that more than just one set of parents may be crucial to a child’s life.  It’s not that I think one can partition up decision-making authority (one of the key elements of parental rights).   That’s not always possible or desirable.  But surely there are other ways to recognize the important relationships that a child has–to recognize that the isolated nuclear family isn’t always where the child lives.    This recognition would come at a cost, but maybe it is worth assessing whether the cost would be worth paying.



13 responses to “Baby Veronica Returned to Adoptive Parents

  1. I would suggest that the courts should consider awarding enforceable visitation. and if the legal parents wish to change their name or address they have to notify the other party.
    I would not however go so far as to say they can not move out of state as is the case when both parties have legal parental status. but, they can not hide there whereabouts.

  2. Julie you said:”Still, if’ I’m attached to the idea that the law ought to reflect reality (and I am), then maybe it ought to recognize that more than just one set of parents may be crucial to a child’s life. It’s not that I think one can partition up decision-making authority (one of the key elements of parental rights). That’s not always possible or desirable. But surely there are other ways to recognize the important relationships that a child has–to recognize that the isolated nuclear family isn’t always where the child lives. This recognition would come at a cost, but maybe it is worth assessing whether the cost would be worth paying.”

    Good grief are you evolving? Is your opinion shifting based on the continued flow of information convincing you that maybe something is lost and does not need to be lost when people raise kids who are not their offspring?

    • No, she’s had that opinion before. It’s basically just wishing for more options and benefits for the legal moms, to “maybe” let their child meet their sperm donor and acknowledge them as persons of interest to the child, and maybe give them some designated time together (free babysitting), but not to give the sperm donor any say in the child’s life. The “cost” is just letting him into their lives because he might introduce something they didn’t want (like offensive male ideas) and they have to admit the child cares about someone else.

  3. “You must to expand your tacit understanding of legal parenthood to take into consideration the millions of legally recognized parents and/or legally recognized adoptive parents who don’t have decision making authority, who don’t have physical custody. You must acknowledge that there are millions of legally recognized parents who have not done the heavy lifting of childrearing, who may only have supervised visitation or who may have no visitation at all (think restraining order). You must not overlook the millions of legally recognized parents who may never have met or provided financial support for their children. The law does legally recognize people as parents and as adoptive parents based soley upon conditions that have nothing to do with child rearing well or poorly done. Conditions like court approved adoption paperwork or a positive maternity or paternity test or as much as I hate it, marriage to a woman that gave birth. A person’s legal parents or legal adoptive parents don’t necessarily have decision making authority over them. A child in foster care is not in his or her legal parent’s custody, yet the law still recognizes them legally as the foster kid’s parents. And permanent rights flow from that legal recognition of kinship within that family that relate to family member’s physical health and access to documents that identify their biological relatives and citizenship rights and rights to family leave act time off and benefits and tax status and a host of things rights that won’t even need to be exercised until adulthood – all stem from records identifying a person’s legal parents.

    There really is no reason to terminate legal parenthood in order to recognize legal adoptive parenthood. As you can see from my above being a legal parent does not mean you have authority over your minor child. “

  4. I see the law as a blunt force.

    I like the idea of working towards a more subtle and finely tuned legal system which recognizes the complex needs of children in custody cases. But I wonder — is the legal system capable of that sort of subtlety? The adversarial nature of custody fights (and trial law) makes me wonder about what needs to change in the legal system itself to bring about a more finely tuned system.

    • One of the many problems with this is that the longer the ‘wrong’ family holds on to the child, the more rights they will accrue based on the length of contact and what that means to the child. It surely gives an incentive for the family with custody to drag out the legal case.

      This kind of arrangement is possible – it’s already happening with open adoption. One couple I know adopted two children from a larger sibling group who they committed to keeping in contact with the siblings – monthly visits minimum. The birth parents weren’t included in this. It wasn’t easy for various reasons but it can be done.

  5. Julie only sees/cares making sure that the partners of mothers also have physical custody and authority to make decisions on behalf of minors, the other aspects of legal parenthood are not just off her radar but are almost deliberately avoided. As I was saying about the fact that being a legal parent does not actually mean what she wants everyone to think it means, not all legal parents have custody or control of the minors they are legal parents of. So if you say that you are someone’s legal parent they are not going to understand you to have custody and control the way they would if you say that you are someone’s legal guardian actually. There are no legal guardians without custody or decision making authority. In contrast millions of parents and adoptive parents don’t have custody and don’t have decision making authority or might have some reduced level of custody, authority, visitation. That is because the word parent really is not a verb it does not describe an activity but it describes a fact of who a person is in relation to someone else by blood or by adoption or faulty law.

    If Julie you want to go after a legal status that has real authority attached try guardianship.

  6. I don’t think the law can force people to get along. If the adults don’t get along, awarding joint custody or forced visitation would be condemning the child to being a tug-of-war rope. If the adults can get along and there is some evidence in that direction, the child will benefit from joint custody and visitation. Otherwise, the winner-take-all approach is better for the child, IMO.

    • Tell me Kali do you feel that way absolutely? Never joint custody unless the parents are amicable? I’m curious as to why you think it would be beneficial to a minor to loose contact with half their family and all their kinship rights within that half of the family and them loose all their kinship rights to contact with them access to their records etc. Shoot just the financial support of two parents vs one parent is an enormous loss for a minor. If people can’t get along annd its just general personality and personal issues and nobody has broken the law, no restraining orders, no proven and convicted negligence on the part of either parent and as individuals their relationship with the child is unremarkable and peaceful, it seems incumbent upon the adults to have to make it work for the benefit of their joint offspring. What happens to the unfulfilled obligation of the one of the parents? They just cease to have any responsibility for having put a dependent human being on the earth? Just off Scott free? Shouldn’t they in fact be forced legally to overlook their petty differences for the benefit of the child and not treat the child as a tool or object of tug of war? How sad it would be for a person to loose out on being part of their familly because one of their parents was an ego maniac who has no empathy for the child or the child’s family. I think that any parent who refuses to cooperate or trys to thwart the other parent’s efforts to provide for their child and be a part of their child’s life should be dealt with harshly and penalized somehow that won’t interfere with their own continued parental performance. Like a restraining order against them speaking to the other parent they have to talk through an intermediary and they have to have total joint custody + family counseling or something.

      • Usually this tug-of-war consists of drawn out litigation, one court case after another. You can’t hand out restraining orders for going to court.

        • Kali
          The one court case after another is BECAUSE of the winner-take-all state of affairs in custody cases. If parents were simply told to suck it up and cooperate
          and share responsibility like they are supposed to there would be no back and forth. Unless its downright dangerous for parents to share custody TFB.

  7. sometimes its impossible to share decision making, but that doesn’t mean the other party had to lose thei visitation!

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