The Child is the Center

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.  -Mohandas Gandhi

When I was a child, I had a good friend who had a difficult home life.  One night, she came over to my house and told my mom and me that her mom had physically abused her.  Mom checked her out, and she was physically OK, but she was definitely shaken and emotionally harmed.  Our moms were both single moms, and they relied on each other and both took care of each of us.  That night, my mom called the police to report her friend for child abuse.

It’s only as an adult that I realize how difficult it must have been for my mom to call the police and report her friend and neighbor, risking their friendship, Mom’s peace in the neighborhood, and my friendship with her daughter.

But my mom loved this child as if she were a daughter.  So, for her sake, she did the right thing and called the police.  Mom’s actions were courageous.  She put the child first, over herself and over the other adult in the situation.

That’s what it means to be child-centric.  It means putting the child first. I never would have thought I’d need to make an argument that we should put kids first.  Strangely, though, there are those who argue, though not explicitly, that adults’ needs should come before children.

A Case Study

The Sonya Hodgin case, recently in the media, is an example of child-centric vs. adult-centric reasoning in child welfare cases.  Sonya was with her foster-then-adoptive family for 8 years.  Suddenly, however, the courts turned her over to her biological father, John McCaul, Jr., a stranger to her.  (Read more about the case here).

A group of child welfare advocates who met during a previous high-profile case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl), represent the child-centric view.  We don’t have “skin in the game.”  Most of us who are fighting to get Sonya home to her parents don’t even know the family (or didn’t, prior to the case).  We simply heard of the case and knew that Sonya must terrified to have been removed from her loving home and handed over to a man she didn’t remember.  Jessica Munday, a public relations firm owner who volunteered on Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, is once again volunteering her time to get Sonya home.  Two wonderful attorneys, Kendall Sykes and Arathi Nobles, also are donating an unbelievable amount of time to the case.  These are the people who care so much about children that they cannot sit by and watch while injustice harms children.  People who are willing to spend their time and money to help a child they don’t even know.

How, you ask, could anyone NOT advocate that children are first?  Let’s look at some of their arguments.

A Parent Deserves to Raise his Child, Even if He’s not Fit

John McCaul, Jr. is a violent career criminal.  He may now be reformed and on the right path.  I certainly hope so, for Sonya’s sake.  Some people say that he’s paid his debt to society and should be given a chance to raise his daughter.   Therein lies the difference between a child-centric and an adult-centric view.  The adult-centric view focuses on the father’s needs – his wanting to raise his child.  The child-centric view, however, focuses on Sonya’s needs.  She lived with the Hodgins 8 years.  In every way, they are her parents.  Some of McCaul’s supporters argued, even after she had been with him only a few days, that she doesn’t miss her parents, doesn’t want to come home, and finally feels to be with the family who provided half of her DNA.  They even said she didn’t miss her horse!

1 thriving

Doesn't miss her horse

Doesn’t miss her horse

Biology is Best, and Time-Share Parenting

In an adult-centric view, biology is king.  It’s true that our biological imperative, for our own needs or for the survival of our people, is to pass along our DNA.  The adult-centric McCaul supporters, however, call biological parents “real” parents, which assumes that parents who foster for a long time, or who adopt, are not “real”.

The “Biology is Best” apologists believe that adoption is generally traumatic.  They believe that, even for a child with no biological mother and whose father has been in jail most of her life, the biological father deserves to raise her.

3 Adoptive Parents aren't Real4 Constituitional Right4 Constitutional Right

They also believe that relatives should take care of children.  And, generally, I agree.  If there are loving, stable relatives who can and will take care of a child as soon as that child is in need, I think that’s the best option.  (In Sonya’s case, her paternal grandmother was studied for placement, but DSS declined, keeping Sonya with the Hodgins).  That being said, stability is essential for kids.  If relatives can’t or won’t take care of the child immediately, the child needs care.  If a loving, stable family steps up to care for a child in need for 15 of the past 22 months, and the biological parent can’t or won’t step up, s/he should lose her rights.  

I was surprised in Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl how many of these same supporters thought it was just fine for the biological father to decide he didn’t want to take responsibility for 13 months (9 during the pregnancy and 4 thereafter) but come back for her later.   But biology was most important to the adult-centric supporters.  In their view, however long he waited, the biological father had a right to raise his daughter.  How many other children would be left in the cold if potential adoptive parents knew a biological parent could take the child at any time, harming that child and devastating those parents?  You cannot be a time-share parent.  Parenting is 24-7.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to reunify children with their biological parents when parents are ill.  If parents have a problem, and they make diligent and consistent efforts to solve that problem quickly so the child doesn’t have yet another secure attachment severed, they should have that opportunity. I just don’t think that applies in the case of parents who are not ill but who willfully abandon that child.   A life of crime is not an illness; it’s a choice.

A Child’s View Just Isn’t That Important

While McCaul was in prison, the Hodgins were caring for Sonya.  Yet the other side calls them “child thie[ves]”  and says an ex-felon would be better than the “thieves” to raise Sonya. There’s no regard for the idea that Sonya loves the Hodgins; they raised her for 8 years, and, regardless of what their legal relationship is, from her point of view, they are her parents.

5 Child Thief

In fact, they say “If I were in John[sic] shoes…I would fight you to the death, come hell or high water before I would lay down and let you take my child.”  This is followed by “John has the God given right to raise his child, and he is!”  Many of us would go to the ends of the earth for our children.  Sometimes that means making painful decisions to give our child the best life possible.   In McCaul’s case, that would have meant considering Sonya’s future when he was considering continuing his life of crime.  John could have prioritized his infant, and gotten a respectable job.  Instead, he chose the vocation of robbing people at gunpoint.

God Given Right

Child-centric Sonya supporters argue that she has a right to be with her parents, who raised her for 8 years, and who call her an adoptive child.  The adult-centric camp says she was never adopted, since a voided adoption is like an adoption that never happened.  Adult-centric McCaul supporters are more concerned with a legal definition of adoption.  Child-centric Sonya supporters are more concerned with how she would experience life – 8 years with the same family, having been adopted and celebrating that adoption! We support the child’s rights over the rights of any other party.

7 Voided = Never

A Child’s Voice Just Isn’t that Important

After Stephen Konig, a child-centric Sonya supporter made the argument that Sonya should be consulted, an adult-centric McCaul supporter said of this nine year old child that the courts can’t grant Sonya what she wants, and that “if adults are doing their job, they are making choices based on the best interest of everyone, including a child.”[v] (bold added.) On first reading, that seems reasonable.  A child-centric supporter would say almost the same thing, except that the sentence would change “everyone” to the “the child.”  The sentence should end there.    “The best interest of the child” should be the sole consideration.

8 Child Opinion

One thing that would happen in the best interest of a child in any court case with a child who’s capable of stating her opinions and ideas, is that parties involved would talk to the child!  No one suggests that a nine year old should make the absolute decision about where she should live.  But she should be consulted!  The question need not be, “Sonya, where do you want to live?”   Good parents treat their kids with respect, including asking their opinions. These are life-altering decisions, and the child should be consulted.  That’s being child-centric.

When Sonya was turned over to McCaul, she was crying.  The police were present.  There are guidelines for transitioning a child from one family to another, which involves gradual contact with the new family, with the known family present at first.  None of those guidelines were followed.   In fact, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services put nine year-old Sonya in a hotel room with McCaul!  Remember, she didn’t know him.  The court was adult-centric in its decision to suddenly order Sonya’s turnover.   For whatever reason, they valued McCaul’s right to parent, but didn’t value Sonya’s civil rights even slightly. 


If we neglect and abuse children, our society is doomed.  Kids have so much potential.  We must help them have loving, stable families so they can reach that potential.  Any consideration of the adults in the situation have to be subordinate to the rights of the child.

I’ll end with this quote from John Simmons, who makes a child-centric statement.  “I am not “for” international adoption. I am not against it. I am “for” children having loving parents and being in homes where they have a support network.”[vi]

Bonnie Cleaveland, PhD, Psychologist



Suddenly, a new family

Two recent high-profile cases have caught the attention of child welfare activists.  One of the primary reasons for the substantial media attention to both cases has been the sudden nature of the transitions.  It’s obvious even to non-professionals that a child shouldn’t be plucked from one family and dropped into another without time and procedures for adjustment. Let’s try something.

If you didn’t know anything about children and their development, but you had to be in charge of a child’s transition from a foster family the child has been with and loves to another family that child didn’t know, how would you do it?

  1. Right after the judge’s decision, have the police come to a meeting with both families.  Despite the child’s protests of not knowing the new family, and wanting to stay with his or her family, turn the child over within a few hours.


  1. Make the transition over weeks or months.  Start with phone calls, then visits in neutral locations with both families present, letting the child express his or her feelings and having a mental health consultant present.  Allow both families to be present in the child’s life.

If you answered B, you have common sense!  I don’t really think we need much research to understand that B is the only reasonable answer.  And, in fact, this is probably the way that most transitions from foster care work.

“Once the child attaches to a caregiver and that caregiver has become the psychological parent, it is crucial that the transition from the caregiver’s home be as emotionally protective as possible. Poorly executed or improperly timed transitions may adversely impact a child’s healthy development as well as the child’s continuing capacity to attach to others.”[1]

Obviously, if a child is in a psychologically or physically dangerous situation, an immediate transfer is necessary. In the recent cases, though, a child was transferred from one loving family to another, under court order, without any transition time.  The abrupt transition puts children at serious risk of mental health problems, including Reactive Attachment Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The cases

In 2011, when she was two years old, VC was transferred to her biological father from the family who had raised her since birth.  (For more information, see  The transfer occurred soon after a court hearing, with little warning and no transition ordered by the court.  In the second case, 9 year-old Sonya Hodgin, who had been with her foster and adoptive family about 8 years, was turned over with two hours notice to her biological father, with whom she had had no relationship.  Police were present, and Sonya was begging not to let him take her.

Now, there are clearly exceptions to a gradual transition, and the best interest of each child should be taken into account each time.  This means that Child Protective Services workers, attorneys, judges, guardians at litem, and attorneys ad litum should understand a child’s situation. These are children’s emotional lives at stake.  The transition should never be dramatic just because the court battle has dragged out.

When a babysitter comes over, you give him or her instructions on what to do.  When’s bedtime, the child’s routines, what the child is allowed and not allowed to do, what allergies s/he has, information about special needs or medical conditions.  Think how much more information should pass between parents in a permanent transition situation.  Parenting coordination has been developed as a discipline to help high-conflict parents implement their parenting plans.[2]  Professionals are available to help with transitions, and they should be consulted.

Healthy Transitions

Let’s look at what’s standard practice and what the research says about how children should be transitioned.

A simple factsheet from provides some information for foster families transitioning to adoptive family.[3]  Even a child remaining within the same home, but making the transition from foster care to adoption, needs help with the transition.  The factsheet recommends helping a child understand her life history and path forward, and giving her implicit and explicit permission to love both families.

Henry (2005) outlines a model for transitions from foster to adoptive care, which could serve as a model cases like VC’s case and Sonya’s case. Her model lists five steps.  First, a child should be given notification of a move over a period of weeks.  Second, a visit should occur in the existing home for two to three hours with both families present.  Next, two to three visits within 1-3 days of each other should occur with the newer family outside the home.  After that, 3+ four- to six- hour visits at the new home should occur within a week.  Finally, 4-6 overnight visits in a period of two weeks complete the transition period.  Of course, the child’s individual circumstances, adjustment to the transition and development level should be taken in to account.  Had Henry’s (2005) guidelines been followed, both children would have had much less stress in the transition and less risk of psychological harm.

Children who don’t have a stable family life have enough stress without dramatic transitions.  Our court system, and our child protection agencies, need to do better for children.

[1] Advokids: A Legal Resource for California Foster Children and Their Advocates.

[2] Greenberg, E. (2010, January).  Fine Tuning the Brainding of Parenting Coordination.  Family Court Review 48(1), 206-2011.

[3] Children’s Bureau (2012).  Helping Your Foster Child Transition to Your Adopted Child.