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Florida Boy Can Sue To Cut Ties to Parents

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In a ruling that could break new legal ground, a Florida judge ruled last month that an 11-year-old boy has the right to seek to end his relationship with his parents.

The boy, identified as Gregory K., alleges in a lawsuit filed in April that his parents have abused, neglected, and abandoned him, and charges that the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services had "failed and refused to take appropriate action'' on his behalf.

Documents filed in the case show that the boy has been bounced between homes and institutions for several years and had been in the foster-care system for 31 of the past 33 months.

Gregory K. hopes to cut all ties with his parents so he can be adopted by the foster family with whom he has lived for the past nine months.

Although the issue of the child's placement has yet to be settled, State Circuit Judge Thomas S. Kirk, in his capacity as a juvenile judge, ruled July 10 that the Florida constitution grants the boy the same right as an adult to seek protection of his interests.

"What was won was merely the right of a child to be heard in court,'' said Jeanne Lenzer, the chairman of the National Child Rights Alliance, an advocacy group for abused and neglected children. "We think this is a very important step.''

Jerri A. Blair, the boy's lawyer, called the decision a "big breakthrough'' because it ensures that there is a "protective device to help kids from falling through the cracks'' of the child-welfare system.

"This is the first time anybody has recognized that a child should know what abuse is and be able to come and tell the court,'' she added.

A Pandora's Box?

In most cases involving minors, a legal guardian is supposed to represent a child's best interests.

Although the boy's father has relinquished all parental rights and supports the adoption, his mother, identified as Rachel K., is contesting the action. She and the state agency argue that, as a minor, Gregory K. has no standing to sue his parents.

They also say the ruling may prompt a flood of suits by children against their parents.

"It opens up a Pandora's box,'' said Harry H. Morall, one of the lawyers representing Rachel K.

"At a time when we're trying to keep families united, coherent, and bonded,'' he added, "I think this is going to put another nail in the coffin of the American family.''

Ms. Blair argued, however, that the goal of reunifying families "gets taken to extremes'' in situations of severe neglect or abuse, or "when there isn't any family relationship to reunify.''

She added that the principles behind the ruling could also help "strengthen parents' right to get a child a back'' in some cases.

Calling the decision "the right thing to do legally and morally,'' the boy's foster father, identified as George R., said its impact would be limited because most children cannot afford the legal costs. He also argued that lawyers and courts would not back "frivolous'' lawsuits.

Chris Hansen, associate director of the children's-rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he did not think the ruling would overextend the courts' control over parental decisions.

"I don't think the court will start deciding [children's] bedtimes,'' he said. But he predicted that the case would "illustrate broader problems within the [child-welfare] system,'' such as inadequately trained workers, unwieldy caseloads, and "poor decisionmaking.''

Mr. Morall argued, however, that the courts are not the right venue to solve those problems.

"The system we have has not been exhausted,'' he said. "Let's correct that.''

Hearings on the question of the boy's custody are scheduled for next month.

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