Orlando Sentinel

Don't look for lesson in this tale

Kathleen Parker
January 17, 2001
The Orlando Sentinel

Sometimes a story is so bad it's hard to find a moral. So it is with the tale of a 14-year-old Canadian boy who is starving himself to protest his lousy lot at the hands of his divorced parents and the court system.

Meet Clayton Giles, who began the new year with a hunger strike, a Web site legalkids.com and an agenda to make children's voices heard in family court.

That agenda, though complicated in its execution and anything but simple in Clayton's case, may be the only redeeming feature of what is otherwise a tragedy and a bizarre extension of virtual reality. Forget millionaires, survivors and couples foiled by temptation. In Clayton's case, we all get to witness the slow starvation of a child while his adult protectors stand back and keep score.

Even the most twisted voyeur among us must feel shame at this exploitation of a child's willingness to love his parents even unto death.

As I write, Clayton is on his 15th day of the strike. He decided to stop eating because, according to his journal, he wants his father to have full parental custody. Clayton has been living with his father for a year, after running away from his mother's home for the third time. She had too many rules, he says; Dad lets him be himself.

It's hard to keep up with the chronology of this dysfunctional family, but after talking to all the players, I can confidently say no one is winning. Even so, various advocates and agitators have managed to align themselves with their favorite character. Divorced custodial mothers can sympathize with Clayton's mother, Marnie Harrison, a schoolteacher who had to declare bankruptcy owing to legal bills and whose ex-husband owes $45,000 in child support.

Fathers' rights groups have glommed onto Eric Giles and his brave little son for manning the front lines in the cause of disenfranchised fathers and gender bias in the courts. Although lots of fathers have been wrongly disenfranchised -- and too many children cruelly deprived of access to both parents -- court records unfit for reprinting suggest that Eric Giles falls short of the poster dad fatherhood advocates might have hoped for.

As hunger strikes go, this one has been effective. Clayton has gotten plenty of media attention; reporters and TV cameras can be found at his home and outside the courthouse where the boy holds daily vigils. But at what point will Clayton have starved enough? When will a responsible adult step into this picture? Who's in charge?

Even though child protective services investigators are following the case, and Giles takes his son to a doctor every two days to monitor his health, clearly Clayton is in charge.

Although the emotional toll of divorce on children can hardly be overestimated, we seem confused about the meaning and intent of "children's rights" and the need to hear children's voices in divorce. Children are not equal partners with adults at the negotiating table. Regardless of their willingness to cooperate, they're not equipped emotionally or intellectually to determine their own best interest.

There's a difference, meanwhile, between empowering a child to make adult decisions and a child's right to be loved and protected by his parents. Which explains the difficulty of finding a moral to this story. In granting Clayton adult power over his well-being while depriving him of the protection he deserves, his father helped script an immoral story.

Contact Kathleen Parker: Orlando Sentinel, Box. 2833, Orlando, Fla. 32802 or kparker@orlandosentinel.com.

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