Baby tug-of-war puts O J out of the news

A YEAR ago it was Baby Jessica. Now America is transfixed by Baby Richard - another protracted and convoluted adoption custody case which has caused uproar in Chicago, anxiety among adoptive parents across the country, and an astounding clash between the Governor of Illinois and his state's Supreme Court.

At the centre of the turmoil is 3-year-old 'Richard', given away by his mother when he was four days old and then legally adopted by an unnamed couple in Chicago. This month, however, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed decisions by two lower courts and ordered that Richard be returned to the biological parents he had never seen.

For Otakar Kirchner, the Czech immigrant who has fought to regain the son whom his girlfriend, now his wife, had told him died at birth, the verdict is a huge victory. For everyone else, except the Illinois Supreme Court, it is a travesty of justice and common sense which puts the finer points of the law over the child's best interests.

In Chicago, Baby Richard has dislodged O J Simpson from newspapers and talk shows, where callers overwhelmingly favour the adoptive couple. But even their agitation cannot compete with the astonishing exchanges between Governor Jim Edgar, embroiled in a tough re-election campaign, and an Illinois judge, James Heiple.

Hours after the Supreme Court had rejected requests to re-examine the decision ordering Richard to be returned to Mr Kirchner and his wife, Mr Edgar lashed out at the judges for their 'smugness and betrayal' of the child and of the voters who elected them to the court. To which Justice Heiple retorted by accusing the Governor of a 'crass political move'.

After attacking a Chicago columnist for 'journalistic terrorism' in his criticism of the court, Justice Heiple departed from bland legalese to urge Mr Edgar to 'return to the classroom and study the law'. The Governor, he wrote, did not understand the case, its only interest for him was political.

Mr Heiple also gave short shrift to the argument about the child's best interests: if that were the determining factor, 'persons seeking babies to adopt might profitably frequent grocery stores and snatch them from carts when parents aren't looking'.

That judgement will not be the end of the affair. Jessica De Boer had never been properly adopted when she was returned to her birth parents last year. Baby Richard has been, giving his adoptive parents a far stronger case. At Governor Edgar's urging, the Illinois legislature has rushed through a law making the interests of the child the decisive factor in an adoption dispute. The tug- of-war will have to be resolved by the US Supreme Court, but probably not before 1996.

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