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New Salvo in Custody Wars : Courts: How much can a single parent rely on day care? How important is care from a family member? A Michigan case raises fears--and hackles.

August 03, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just about the only thing the parties in Ireland vs. Smith agree upon is that the case was never intended to be an indictment of day care. What they were arguing about, Jennifer Ireland and Steven Smith say through their lawyers, was child support and custody--nothing more.

But in ruling that 3-year-old Maranda Kate Ireland-Smith would be more likely to find "security . . . a safe place . . . (and) permanency" in the home of her father and paternal grandparents than in the day-care facility where she was sent by her college student mother, a Michigan judge has unleashed a full-force tempest.

Suddenly, the issues of single mothers who pursue their educations, children who are not "raised and supervised by blood relatives" and "child-parents"--unwed mothers and fathers who bring offspring into the world before they are themselves of majority age--were under a microscope.

"The mother's academic pursuits, although laudable, are demanding, and in order to complete her program it necessitates the leaving of the child for a considerable portion of its life in the care of strangers," Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Raymond Cashen wrote in explaining his decision to place Maranda in the custody of her 20-year-old father and his parents.

Cashen's conclusions followed nine days of hearings initiated when Ireland sought child support payments of $12 per week. Smith countersued, demanding custody of Maranda. It was the first appearance in court for Ireland and Smith, who are not married and who grew up in Mount Clemens, Mich., a working-class community not far from Detroit.

In an opinion released last week, the judge riled representatives from women's groups and child advocacy organizations when he added: "There is no way that a single parent, attending an academic program at an institution as prestigious as the University of Michigan, can do justice to their studies and to the raising of an infant child." Legal experts also expressed reservations about the ruling.

Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, called the decision shocking, adding: "It puts women who are doing the very best they can do for their children into a lose-lose-lose situation."

Leslie de Pietro, a counselor at the Family Resources Center at the University of Michigan, was equally appalled, asserting, "To me the biggest irony in this case is that the judge is essentially saying to single mothers, 'stay at home, go on welfare, let the taxpayers support you and be that kind of role model.' "

And Scott A. Altman, a family law professor at the University of Southern California, branded Cashen's action as "just simple, plain, old-fashioned gender discrimination," where the prevailing view is that "women should not be pursuing their education, and if they do, they should be punished."

With 15 days before the ruling was to take effect, 19-year-old Jennifer Ireland was in seclusion. Through her attorneys, who filed an emergency motion Monday, asking the Michigan Court of Appeals to block the judge's order, she declined interview requests.

But Smith, who lives with his parents while working part time in the local parks department and attending a community college, said he was overjoyed by the decision.

His only disappointment, Smith said by telephone from Mount Clemens, was that the wording of Cashen's opinion "makes it sound like a day-care issue, and it's not. There are many more facets to this case than just day care."

*

The "moral fitness" of both parties was, for example, an area that Cashen dwelt on heavily in his ruling. The judge described Ireland as "sexually indiscriminate as a young girl." Smith, Cashen said, "wasn't much better"--adding that both parties "had a great fetish for partying" and that neither parent deserved "medals for their youthful activities."

Cashen also examined the consistency of Maranda's care to date, concluding that "the maternal grandparent was the staying force in the early raising of the child." He also credited Ireland's mother with having provided the bulk of Maranda's financial support since birth.

He failed, however, to pay credence to allegations of domestic violence raised by Ireland against Smith. "The parties in their youthful way apparently crashed or mauled one another," Cashen wrote. "It is all superfluous."

But while Cashen, who declined interview requests because he has jurisdiction over the case until Maranda is 18, dismissed the domestic violence issue as "not pertinent," Ireland's attorneys said the matter would figure prominently in the appeal.

No one disputed the basic facts of the case. Ireland was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when she became pregnant. Smith, then a 16-year-old student at the same parochial school, acknowledged paternity. They considered abortion, adoption and briefly had the child in foster care. Marriage was never an option.

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