Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Editorial: Fatherhood rules

Single parents of both sexes have rights, duties

Tuesday, March 07, 2000
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Unmarried fathers have rights and responsibilities. That is the upshot of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling last year regarding the placement of a little girl who is now 4 years old.

If, as seems inevitable, the decision leads to the removal of the girl from the Forest Hills couple that has raised her from birth, the outcome in human terms will be troubling. Nonetheless, the principle underlying the decision is correct.

If the courts looked only at the "best interest of the child," the little girl would stay in the stable, loving family of which she is currently a part. But here's the problem: The girl's father, Alphonso Andrews of Cambria County, never agreed to give up his parental rights, and in fact has spent the last four years asserting in court his right to raise his daughter.

When 16-year-old Erica Erdley gave birth to the child in January 1996, she immediately gave her up for adoption. Genesis of Pittsburgh, the agency that handled the adoption, never got permission from Mr. Andrews, but placed the child anyway with Darrell and Cindy Matthews, who seemed a perfect match.

Within a month, Mr. Andrews went to Cambria County Common Pleas Court seeking to gain custody of the daughter he had never seen from the family whose identity he was not allowed to learn. The prospective adoptive parents could have handed the child over to the father or the judge could have granted him custody. Even at that point it would have been a difficult separation, but nothing like the trauma that is about to be unleashed on a 4-year-old.

However, the family pressed its claim. In July 1996, Common Pleas Court Judge Timothy P. Creany decided that Darrell and Cindy Matthews had the right to challenge Mr. Andrews' custody petition because they had served in loco parentis, that is, they had legal standing by virtue of acting as substitute parents for the child. He ruled that even though the father objected to giving up the child, the mother had made them in loco parentis, and one parent's consent is enough.

It is on this key point that the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, ordering a new custody hearing at which Mr. Andrews is expected to prevail.

After giving the Matthewses status, Judge Creany then set up a contest between them and Mr. Andrews over who would provide the best home for the child.

Although as natural father, Mr. Andrews was to be given extra weight for his petition, it simply was not enough, in Judge Creany's eyes, to overcome the Matthewses' advantages of stability, maturity and relative wealth.

This is the problem in the application of the "best interests" standard. Many birth parents -- married as well as unmarried -- would lose their children if they were forced to defend their claim against that of a well-to-do couple interested in adopting a child.

Because Judge Creany allowed the child's "best interest" to trump parental rights four years ago, he must now figure out how to cushion the blow that will be dealt to the child when she is taken from the home she has known for the length of her short life.