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Judges, who make the ultimate decisions about where children should live, are more likely to be blamed when something bad happens. They must live in dread of seeing their names in The New York Times because a child died after they awarded custody to the wrong people. Our first family court judge was given the choice of taking that chance or shifting the responsibility to another judge. However slight the risk that Michele and I would turn out to be the next Hedda Nussbaum and Joel Steinberg, it was even less likely that newspapers would run stories about Judge Hepner's decision to leave Francine in the hospital for another month.
Skittone, the lawyer appointed as Francine's law guardian, did not have it in for us, as his favorable report demonstrated. He was just determined to do the job for which he was being paid, even if it wasn't really necessary. It would not be good for business if word got around that adoptions could be completed without the services that he and other courtroom hangers-on provide. As for the law secretary who insisted that we could not become Francine's guardians until we signed a visitation agreement that no else thought was necessary, she seemed to be genuinely concerned that Evelyn (who was, after all, represented by a lawyer) did not correctly perceive her own interests, and so she decided to intervene. Taking Francine away from us may have been an idle threat, since she never seriously doubted that she would get her way.
We became Francine's parents long before the law recognized us as such. But because we were so powerless, we continued to worry that something would go wrong until the day the adoption was finalized. At that point, the system's bias against action started working in our favor.
Now that Francine has been living with us for three years, there's no question that being her parents was worth all the trouble. But if we had known in advance how emotionally grueling the adoption process would be, I doubt that we would have started it. We never would have found out what it was like to have Francine as a daughter.
Francine, now 6, wanders into my office from the living room, where she was watching cartoons, and tries to slip a butterfly ring that she made in summer camp onto my pinkie. It doesn't quite fit. I ask her if she remembers when Michele and I used to visit her in the hospital. "I remember when you guys took me out of the wheelchair, and they said, `No, no, no,'" she says. "I wanted to go home, so I wouldn't have to be in a wheelchair."
I tell her that I'm writing the story of how we adopted her. I describe in general terms what we had to do. (Although she participated in several of the steps, I'm not sure that she understood they were all part of the same process.) "Why can't you just find a child walking around who lost its parents?" she asks. "Why can't you just take one home?"
My initial reaction is that Francine's reform proposal goes too far: There needs to be some assurance that adoptive parents are prepared to care for a child. But then again, if biological parents do not need to be certified by the government, why should there be a different standard for adoptive parents? Perhaps it is enough to have the consent of the birth mother or, in the case of an orphan, the nearest relative. The government's role would then be limited to verifying the consent and, as with any child, intervening in the event of abuse or neglect. A radical idea, perhaps. But compared to the arbitrary, unpredictable, byzantine system that we dealt with, it doesn't seem so crazy.
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health (The Free Press).