ABOUT ONE THING, Judge Paul Lewis is adamant: Blood is more important than love.
In the six months that Baby Lonnie has been on this earth, the only parents who have ever loved him are Lisa and Darrell Hartwick. When Lonnie was just eight weeks old, they took him joyfully into their home. They fed him and clothed him, nurtured and sheltered him. They cherished him as their son, and looked forward to the adoption order that would confirm them as his mother and father.
But what is the Hartwicks' claim of love against Julie Clark's claim of blood? Clark is a heroin addict, a prostitute, a criminal with at least 40 convictions on her record. But she is Baby Lonnie's biological parent, and in Judge Lewis' courtroom, bio-parents matter more than love-parents.
"Every child," the judge declares, "deserves a chance to be with its natural parents." And so he has yanked this baby from its stable and love-filled home and put it in the custody of its birth mother -- a stranger too incompetent to manage her own life, let alone to supervise a child's.
How often have we heard this story? This time, the setting is Boston. It could be anywhere. It could be Baby Richard in Illinois, taken in tears from the only mom and dad he knew and turned over to a bio-father who had never laid eyes upon him. It could be little Jessica DeBoer, screaming as she was torn from her Michigan home because judges decided she "belonged" to the Iowa strangers who happened to be her bio-parents. It could even, God forbid, be Elisa Izquierdo, the Brooklyn first-grader beaten to death by her mother -- after a Family Court judge who believes in blood before love refused to rescue her from the mother's custody.
"You have to start with the premise that children should remain with their natural parents," says Judge Lewis. You do? Even when the mother is a dope-addled streetwalker? Even when her three older children -- two of whom tested drug-positive at birth -- have been taken away from her? Even when the biological father is in jail for assault?
Lewis is dead wrong. Birth parents are not entitled to their children. Baby Lonnie is not the property of the woman who conceived him. He is a vulnerable human being, and a judge called upon to decide his future should weigh only one criterion: What is in Lonnie's best interest?
The judge disagrees. "It can't just be 'best interest,' " he insists. "That is certainly one factor to take into account -- but only after a court has found the mother to be unfit."
Unfit! She's an unmarried, drugged-out hooker. Her resume lists dozens of arrests. She spent most of her pregnancy in prison. Within five weeks of Lonnie's birth, she managed to get arrested three more times. Her own parents -- who are raising Clark's older children -- have nothing good to say about her. She has been in and out of drug programs for years.
The unfitness of this "mother" is so blisteringly obvious that only a judge could pretend it isn't. How many times does Julie Clark get to fail at motherhood before Lewis decides to concern himself with the baby's welfare?
At least one more, apparently. "The state shouldn't just whip kids out of their home without giving the parents some chance to improve," he says. Incredible. Two kids born with heroin in their blood, and the judge frets about giving HER a break. Where is his sense of mercy?
There is no question -- none whatever -- about the best course for Baby Lonnie. The evidence is overwhelming: Babies who are adopted grow up happier and healthier than almost anyone else. A detailed 1994 study by the Search Institute in Minneapolis found that adopted children are more likely than other children to live with two parents, more likely to do well in school, more likely to be optimists, more likely to avoid alcohol abuse and vandalism, more likely to have a better home environment, more likely to be healthy. Adoption -- the gift of love -- is an unqualified good. No court that made the welfare of a child its top priority would ever delay an adoption while waiting for an abusive or self-destructive bio-parent to get her act together.
But the judge in Baby Lonnie's case has other priorities. At the moment, he's impressed that Clark has managed to stay in a drug program for three whole months. It is the only reason he gives for ordering the Hartwicks to give Lonnie up.
"Don't you believe people can turn their lives around?" he asks. "I do. There are many people in this society who had addiction problems and turned it around. I hope this woman is one of them."
We all hope so. But what does that have to do with a six-month-old baby? Why should Lonnie be ripped from the only people who have earned the right to call themselves his parents -- the loving and responsible Hartwicks? By what perverse logic do judges award babies as trophies to irresponsible addicts who manage to stay clean for three months?
At a stroke, Lewis has broken the hearts of Lisa and Darrell Hartwick, put a baby in the hands of a walking disaster, and more or less guaranteed Baby Lonnie a bitter and loveless childhood.
This is where the reverence for blood ties over love ties leads: to kidnapping cloaked in law and travesty masquerading as justice.