Court-Ordered Trauma Experts Say Transfer Will Hurt `Richard'

Article excerpt

SOON, the little boy known as Richard may learn what the rest of the country already knows.

He has another set of parents, whom he has never met, and the Illinois Supreme Court has ordered him to leave the adoptive family he loves and everything he has known to go live with them. The U.S. Supreme Court, at the request of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, will review the case and might grant a stay of the custody order.

The way in which these events unfold may determine the course of this not-quite-4-year-old boy's life.

Undoubtedly, the court-ordered transfer to his biological father - if and when it happens - will hurt Richard profoundly. How he ultimately fares depends on, among other factors, his personality and how well his parents care for him.

The one thing most likely to make this traumatic event, should it happen, easier, is something that neither set of parents has been able to do: work together for the sake of the child.

Child psychiatrists and other child development experts said the upheaval also comes at a crucial point in the boy's life, at the age he is beginning to venture into the world.

If Richard is sent to live with his biological parents, "He'll be at risk because of having sustained a very major loss in early childhood," said Steven Nickman, director of the adoption and custody unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"What we know about children (who experience similar trauma) is that they remain vulnerable throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood. What happens depends upon the kind of caretaking he receives and the kind of luck he has in his life."

Richard's situation is rare. His birth mother, Daniela Janikova, gave him up for adoption when he was born. At the time, she and the child's father, Otakar Kirchner, were unmarried and separated. She told Kirchner the baby had died. They later reconciled and married. Kirchner - who, unlike Janikova, never signed away his parental custody - has been trying to regain custody since Richard was 3 months old; the adoptive parents, known as John and Jane Doe, have fought to maintain custody.

But though it is rare, it can be compared with cases in which children are returned to their biological parents after lengthy stays in foster care and, to a lesser extent, to children whose parents get divorced, experts said.

Some research has shown that children of divorced parents tend to show more behavioral problems when the parents continued to fight throughout the divorce and afterward.

The same would likely be true in Richard's case, said Lauren Wakschlag, director of the Parent-Infant Development Service at the University of Chicago's psychiatry department.

"If he can come out of this awful experience feeling like he has two sets of parents who care for him and love him and who continue to love him regardless of where he's living, this will help him immensely," she said.

A gradual move from one family to the other is critical, most experts agreed. Otakar Kirchner said after the Illinois Supreme Court that he hopes to be introduced into his son's life slowly.

No prescribed timetable exists, but experts recommended building from short visits to overnight trips and ultimately to permanent custody within a period of months to alleviate the boy's confusion and anxiety. …