11 April 2000
The best interest of the child.
By Richard Cohen
WASHINGTON - “The best interest of the child.” If I had a euro for every time I heard that phrase in the last month, I'd be sunning myself in Rome by now. It has been invoked promiscuously in reference to Elian Gonzalez but it comes up so often elsewhere, and always with an air of dead certainty, that it is worth considering all by itself. It should be stricken from the English language.
Why stop at Elian? Go into the ghetto, find some hapless single mother and take her kid from her. It would be in the child's best interest, after all.
IN THE FIRST PLACE, no one ever knows for sure what precisely are the best interests of a child. Psychologists and other experts will chime in, but while their manner is confident, their knowledge ain't all that great. In the case of Elian, experts have been employed by everyone to suit their own purposes. ABC had one on hand when it interviewed the boy. The U.S. government chose its own panel of mental health experts, and even Fidel Castro wanted to send a psychologist to accompany Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to this country. No doubt he would have found that the best interest of the child lay in Cuba.
Not only don't the experts often know what's in the best interest of the child, the concept itself is a dangerous and slippery one. Of course, Elian's own interest may be best served by staying in America. He would grow up in a free, affluent society, reaping all its benefits. When it's
looked at that way, Cuba would be the absolute worst choice.
But by applying the best interest of the child in that way you absolutely trample on the rights of the parents. Why stop at Elian? Go into the ghetto, find some hapless single mother and take her kid from her. It would be in the child's best interest, after all. Take the children of the
Amish who are deprived of creature comforts, and of Christian Scientists before they get sick. The pious would add atheists to the list, homophobes would suggest homosexuals and, by acclamation, Woody Allen would be childless forever.
Elian's father could be brushed aside, not because he was a bad father but because he lived in the wrong country under the wrong political system.
When we use the phrase “the best interest of the child” we are really referring to interests that coincide with our own. Middle-class people think a middle-class lifestyle is preferable to one steeped in poverty. Poorer people, however, might quibble, saying there is more to life than material goods. Americans think their democracy and free enterprise system provide the perfect environment in which to raise a child. But here too some people might quibble: Who are you to say that socialism is not in the best interest of a child?
To see the ultimate danger in this approach we need only recall the case of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child from Bologna, Italy. In 1858, he was seized from his parents and taken to the Vatican. The reason? Five years earlier, a servant girl had surreptitiously baptized him. The parents pleaded for the child's return, but Pope Pius IX was implacable. In the eyes of the church, Edgardo was a Catholic and for the good of the child he had to be raised as one. Ultimately, Edgardo became a priest.
EXPRESSION OF ARROGANCE
That sort of thing is not likely to happen today. But extreme examples are useful, not just because they indicate where things could wind up but because they isolate the principles involved. The term “best interest of the child” can sometimes be nothing more than an expression of arrogance: My way is the best way. My country is the best country. My religion is the true religion.
Those sentiments are exactly what is being expressed in the Elian case. From the psychologists who think they know the kid after a very short time with him, to the zealots in the Cuban American community, to American politicians, everyone is so sure of the best interest of the child they concluded the father's interest did not matter at all. He could be brushed aside, not because he was a bad father but because he lived in the wrong country under the wrong political system.
HAVE SOME HUMILITY
In their newspaper column, Cokie and Steven V. Roberts concluded, after having spoken with ABC in-house shrink Dr. Gunther Perdigao, that Elian should stay in this country. Perdigao noticed that when Elian “got a little anxious” he would reach out to his cousin, Marisleysis. How
telling! If the kid reached out to his teddy bear would he be sent to the zoo?
A little humility is in order, a bit of deference to the institution of the family. It has served us long and well and leads me, for one, to conclude that Elian belongs with his father. That, I think, is in everyone's best interest.
Richard Cohen writes about politics and culture for The Washington Post.