In last week’s editor’s commentary, Susan Crowell reported that an expert on animal law, defending the growing practice of custody battles over pets, declared that “any animal – at least one with a sense of self – should become eligible for legal rights.”
Let’s set aside the obvious challenge of how one would ascertain that an animal had “a sense of self.” Would a well-adjusted goldfish qualify? How about a rabbit with an identity crisis who might still respond well to therapy?
Instead, we will address the irony that is a society where children are treated as chattel while growing legal effort is expended on the rights of golden retrievers to have the best home life possible.
Property. While animals are being afforded legal representation, children are merely “belongings” with no defined legal rights. They are tied by the tenuous strings of biology to anyone with the DNA to assert his or her “right” to the child.
The fortunate majority have loving families. The rest are like hundreds of thousands of children currently at risk across this nation. Denied the ultimate legal right to be permanently removed from abusive, negligent, or disinterested families and given permanent homes while they are still young enough to benefit from them. Doomed to “belong” to people who cannot, or will not, care for them properly. “Parents” in only the loosest sense who must go beyond the pale of horrific behavior before truly losing their children for good.
These are children wrenched from loving care givers to be returned to the strangers who birthed them. Children repeatedly returned to abusive parents who ultimately kill them. Children at the whim of the adults around them to whom they “belong” – regardless of how flawed those adults might be.
Lost and not found. Nowhere is the tragedy of treating people as property more apparent than in the case of Rilya Wilson. Five-year-old Rilya has been misplaced, much like a set of car keys or reading glasses, by the State of Florida Child Protection Agency.
Worse, upon realizing they had not a clue where she might be, the caseworkers involved chose not to sound the alarm and call out the cavalry but instead to conceal their own incompetence for well over a year. They wasted valuable time repeatedly lying to a judge about Rilya’s whereabouts and their own inattention to her welfare; the rights of the child would appear to have been the least of their worries.
Unhappy ending. Certainly, the tragedy of little Rilya began before the State of Florida muddled into her life.
Born to a drug addicted mother and “unknown” father, Rilya began her journey into the foster care system immediately upon her birth when no other family members stepped forward to claim her. For the first three and a half years of her life she received love and familial bonding in the home of a foster parent who would have been delighted to adopt her permanently. The system, it would seem, was working.
This lasted until an aunt she had never met exercised her “rights” as a blood relation and demanded the child be given to her. No one, it appears, bothered to look past auntie’s DNA to the fact that she had a history of mental illness and a criminal record.
Removed without warning from the preschool where she was enrolled, the child was denied even a final good-bye to the only “mother” (albeit a foster one) that she had ever known. In due time she was delivered, much like a package, to the custody of the aunt who would promptly mislay her, by the caseworkers who would help it happen.
Today she is lost. In every sense of the word.
It truly shouldn’t happen to a dog. Or a child. “Rilya”, we are told, stands for “Remember I Love You Always.” Yet, it seems that no one entrusted with Rilya’s fate gave loving her much thought at all.
In the end we can find no evidence of even the feeblest legal defense of this child’s right to remain with the people who had loved her since birth. Perhaps, had she been a chihuahua with “a sense of self,” things could have turned out differently.
(Kymberly Foster Seabolt believes in the rights of both animals and people to have the best lives possible. She welcomes feedback via firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)