The Globe and Mail

Don't play Solomon with a baby's life

A B.C. court says a 10-month-old must leave her adoptive parents for a father she hasn't seen. Bad move


 A custody decision this week in B.C. Supreme Court threatens to have devastating consequences for a young child's life. In a case that called for the wisdom of Solomon, a B.C. Supreme Court judge was asked whether to allow a 10-month-old infant to remain with her adoptive parents or to give her to a 25-year-old single man — her biological father, with whom she has never had any contact.

 She has been in the care of the adoptive parents since she was 11 days old. The psychologist from whom the court sought an expert opinion advised that both parenting situations offered the infnnt stable environments, positive child-rearing attitudes, and "solid moral values." Given this parity, the court decided, the rights of the biological father must prevail.

 The decision reflects society's systemic failure to understand a crucial fact, established by decades of research in developmental psychology and neuroscience: Children's emotional experiences during the first years of life decisively influence future psychological health and help shape the very development of the human brain.

 Infants are deeply emotional creatures who establish bonds quickly and firmly with those adults who nurture them. These bonds are essential to the development of the personality, the mind, and the brain. Contrary to previous assumptions, we are learning that the human brain is not a purely genetically programmed organ. Many of its important structures require input from the environment for the development of the nerve cells, circuits and chemicals necessary for their functioning. The circuits of vision, for example, need the stimulation of light: A child placed in a dark room for the first five years of life will thereafter be irretrievabley blind. It is no different for the circuitry that controls human emotional life and stress regulation; it too requires appropriate environmental nourishment.

 So much of our future interaction with other people, with society, and with ourselves depends on the healthy early development of our emotional brain. The most important environmental influences in this process are the quality, strength, and consistency of an infant's attachment relationships with her primary caregivers. The essential requirement is a constantly available, consistently emotionally attuned mothering figure, whoever that figure happens to be: mother, father, grandmother, or adoptive parent.

 Major disruptions in that relationship threaten to disrupt the very physiology of the brain, something which, in these days of stressed or broken family life, explains the increasing prevalence of childhood disorders such as attention deficits, depression and anxiety. The neurochemical dopamine, for example, which plays a key role in motivation and attention, is released in the infant brain in response to emotionally satisfying interactions with the mothering adult; infant monkeys separated from their mothers will, within days, have markedly reduced dopamine levels in their frontal grey matter. The secretion of endorphins, the body's natural opiates and "feel-good" chemicals, is also stimulated by such intimate, joyous interactions.

 So it's not surprising to find that adopted children, who suffer at least one disruption of attachment on separating from their birth mothers, are at greater than average risk for attention deficits or other neuro-psychological problems. In the B.C. adoption case, the court's ruling means, in effect, that the infant girl, already securely bonded with her adoptive parents, is to undergo the trauma of separation for the second time in her young life.

Her emotional brain may well interpret and imprint the loss of her attachment figures as rejection. Her response is likely to be a defensive emotional shutdown against the pain of it, a shutdown that will probably impair her psychological growth, undermine her sense of security, and quite possibly play havoc with her neuro-physiology. Fear of abandonment, dejection, and suppressed anger experienced by infants on separation from the parent, will be hard-wired into her brain.

While it is not difficult to empathize with the desire of the biological father to gain custody of his daughter, I hope that the appeal court will judge this case with some appreciation of the severe impact that the present decision could have on her life. No matter how good a parent the father may intend to be, from the infant's point of view he is a complete stranger. She must be protected from the deep and long-lasting psychological wound that would be inflicted upon her by forced separation from the only she has known.

I would hope the young man can come to terms with his loss and his grief, and like the birth mother in the judgment of Solomon, not visit a similar heartbreak upon his child.

 Gabor Maté is a Vancouver phycisian &  author of Scattered Minds: A New Look at the the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder.

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