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New Question in Baby Vanessa Child Custody Case

Last week, we wrote about the legal issues highlighted by the tragic Baby Vanessa case. In this case, two-year-old Vanessa of California is being forced to leave the only parent she has ever known -- her adoptive mother -- and move to Ohio to live with her biological father, whom she has never known.

This child custody case highlights the real challenges family law faces when balancing a father's rights and the best interest of a child.

The reason Baby Vanessa is being uprooted from her home is that her father, Benjamin Mills, Jr., never consented to her adoption. When she put Vanessa up for adoption, the biological mother lied under oath about his identity.

A parent's right to raise his or her child is considered fundamental and can't be taken away except when a court of law finds the parent to be unfit. No such finding has been made against Mr. Mills. Finding the adoption void two years after the fact, the courts have ordered that Vanessa be given over to Mills.

New information in the case brings up additional questions about the balance of Vanessa's father's rights and her best interests.

In a statement released by his attorney today, Mills will not personally take custody of Vanessa. Instead, his mother, who has legal custody of two others of Mills's children, will raise Vanessa.

Does It Matter Whether Mills or His Mother Has Child Custody?

Situations where a biological father is denied the right to consent to or refuse an adoption are more common than you might expect. While they are unusual enough to make national news, courts and legal scholars have had time to consider the issue. This area of the law is quite unsettled, with passionate opinions on both sides.

Over the past few decades, family courts nationwide have been moving toward making decisions that affect children on the basis of what is in the child's best interest. The exception is when a parent's fundamental rights are concerned.

Whether you believe the law should place a greater weight on the best interest of the child or on the parent's rights, the fact that Mills would not be directly raising Vanessa brings an additional layer of complexity to the case.

The fundamental right here is Benjamin Mills's fundamental right to child custody, or to a relationship with his child. However, Mills will apparently not personally have custody of Vanessa.

Mills's attorney says that Mills wants to build a relationship with Vanessa and to have her bond with her family. Those are very likely considered part of Mills's fundamental rights as a parent, just as his right to raise her would be. Does the fact that Mills will not personally raise Vanessa change the way you would balance things?

Whether this new information will have any impact on the courts' decision remains to be seen.

Related Resource:

"Baby Vanessa: Mills wants his mom to raise girl" (Dayton Daily News, July 26, 2010)

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