A heartwrenching court case in France poses thorny questions as the very meaning of family evolves more quickly than the legal system, or even the experts, can keep up with.
PARIS — A moving, tender film, I Am Sam (2001) tells the story of Sam Dawson, played by Sean Penn. He is a simple, mentally challenged man who works in a café and who finds himself the single parent of daughter Lucy after his partner abandons the two of them. Nothing in the world matters more to Sam than his little girl. But after a few years have gone by, social services remove the child from his care, deeming him an inadequate parent. Lucy is placed with a foster family, a wealthy, elegant and brilliant couple who offer her all the love and security a child could wish for.
The movie's strength derives from the fact that Lucy, who is exceptionally mature, refuses to make the choice she is supposed to make. She becomes attached to her adoptive parents while continuing to love her touching child-father, who lives surrounded by his bunch of nutty friends.
The film comes to mind after Nov. 25, when a court in Rennes completely excluded a father from the life of his child. The court not only refused custody of Corentin to Yoan Delorme, his biological father — entirely comprehensible, in view of the child's particular history — but also all visiting rights, including visits conducted in the presence of the baby's family.
Corentin, whose mother gave birth anonymously, has been living for 17 months with a family that wants to adopt him. His biological father, who recognized him from birth, claimed full parenting rights. He won a first court case, but has just lost in an appeals court.
Branded on his arm
The story of Delorme's paternity is interesting in more ways than one. In prison, he received a visit from his girlfriend, who announced that she was pregnant but that she didn't want the child and that she was leaving him. The father-to-be asked the registry office to recognize the child, and his request was accepted — except that because the mother had given birth anonymously, the father's name could only be listed on the birth certificate if the child wasn't immediately locatable: A woman who chooses to have a child anonymously is not supposed to provide the name of the father.
In accordance with the French civil code, Corentin's placement with his adoptive family precluded custody being given to his biological parents. After the court case, then the appeal, time has elapsed, and Corentin is now 18 months old with an adoptive father and mother who love him and whom he loves — a couple who said they lived "through hell" waiting for the potentially "terrifying verdict" — and a biological father who fought for him within the realm of his possibilities, and who has a tattoo on his right arm that says "To My Son."
Let's be clear: It would have been unthinkable to tear the baby away from parents who had been raising him with love for months. But would it have been so complicated to grant a legal jump seat to a third party so he could prove himself and progressively weave a bond with the child whose path through life he could share?
This is where the weight of the many pedopsychiatric reports listed in the case come into play. Just as the good fairies gathered to present their gifts to the infant Sleeping Beauty, all the experts appear to have been summoned in Corentin's case. They rightly declared that separating the child from his adoptive family would be traumatic. But most of them contented themselves with defending an exclusive vision of the family and giving absolutely no weight to the possible role of the biological father unless to point out that, in view of his "immature character" (Sam, are you there?), he might prevent Corentin from forging harmonious bonds with his adoptive parents.
One of the most renowned experts in France reluctantly said that it was a question of "knowing how to make room" for the father in the child's life, taking an "indispensable," "carefully thought-out series of measures and precautions."
It probably would have taken until the boy was in young adulthood to set all this up so that Delorme could finally take his son out for a pain au chocolat. Only one psychoanalyst, who has been working for 30 years on the role of the father and the necessity of respecting all the protagonists in situations of pluri-parenting and co-parenting, stressed that it seemed to her "very serious that this little boy wouldn't know who his father was and couldn't at the very least see him on a regular basis."
Two mothers, a bitter break
A family today can't be so easily characterized as having "a dad, a mom, nothing more, nothing less." Families are increasingly complex entities composed and recomposed of parents, step-parents, sperm donors and embryos, biological parents who've abandoned a child in a faraway country, and women who carry and give birth to children. Not to mention the brothers and sisters, including half-brothers and sisters, who in their way constitute the foundations of the family architecture. Each family member must have a known and recognized place so that the child has a coherent picture of his place in the world.
If we professionals all claim to know how to identify and diagnose suffering or a dangerous situation in relation to a child or adolescent, we can't then act as if our theoretical — not to say political — presuppositions play no role in what we anticipate when we are called in as experts.
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In San Francisco. Photo: Nerdcoregirl
Recently I've been called in on an increasing number of cases. Ms. A and Ms. B wanted a child, and had one thanks to medical assistance received in Belgium. Ms. A, who carried the child, was the only official mother of little Tom, who was raised by both women with lots of love. Five years later, after a stormy separation, Ms. A, based on the fact that she is the child's biological mother, forbid her former companion from seeing him. Ms. B asked a family affairs judge to grant her rights to see the boy and have him stay with her. An expert was appointed to the case and observed a dangerous symbiosis between Ms. A and her son, but a very positive bond between Ms. B and little Tom in addition to her role as separator in the mother-child relationship. But in view of the conflict between the two women, he decided it would be better not to decide in favor of Ms. B. In a parallel situation, would he have done the same with a man, a father?
We can be sure that there will have to be a multitude of little Lucys before we can justly take into account the extraordinary complexity of all the unique histories of these children we call our own.
*Serge Hefez is a psychiatrist and writer.