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. …