Kids Lose When Culture Trumps Individual Rights

Peter W. Schramm

December 18, 1997

A custody decision in California last week shows just what happens when the law gives in to bogus social science. The individual rights of two little girls are the latest sacrifices to multicultural group-think.

Under the terms of last week’s settlement, Lucy and Bridget Rost will stay with their adoptive parents, Jim and Collette Rost of Columbus, Ohio. But the kids will have “ongoing and continuous contact” with their birth parents, Rick and Cindy Adams of Los Angeles.

That’s fine under California’s open adoption laws. But this was no run-of-the-mill custody case.

As part of the settlement, the Rosts now must raise the twins in line with what the court calls their “Native American culture.” It turns out the birth parents are loosely connected with the Pomo Indian tribe—Rick Adams is said to be 3/32 Pomo. The Rosts must also agree to take the girls to visit the Pomo reservation in California every other year.

You can’t blame the Rosts for settling. After four years of legal wrangling, the case probably ended the best way possible, given the current state of the law. But is the law right?

Lucy and Bridget have lived with the Rosts since birth. What is their “culture”? Are they Pomo Indians or just midwestern girls? And how is it that American law now looks out for the “rights” of a culture over the rights of these girls and their parents?

The court-ordered visitations and “cultural sensitivity” training stem from the ’78 Indian Child Welfare Act. The law was the basis for the Adams’—and later the Pomo tribe’s—custody suit.

The problem is that the law’s underlying principles are totally illegitimate. The Indian Child Welfare Act is symptomatic of a dangerous and growing trend—especially in adoption cases—in which race and culture trump individual rights.

Cultures, tribes, and groups do not have rights in America. But individual rights are at the heart of America’s founding, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Rights aren’t dependent on culture or tribal membership. It was precisely to rid ourselves of such feudal notions that America fought a war for independence.

Our rights depend only upon our nature as human beings. Thus, anyone—Pomo or otherwise—can be an American whose rights are protected under the law. This can only remain the case as long as we acknowledge individual rights, not group rights.

But multiculturalism and “diversity” worship have turned these fundamental ideas upside down. It’s very easy to be confused by the new terms and the arguments behind them.

We’ve let this confusion get the better of us for years now. I knew a woman during my days in the Reagan administration who adopted a two-month-old baby while she was on assignment in Brazil. We were having coffee one day when she remarked that her only worry was how she was going to raise a Brazilian child.

As she talked, it became more and more clear that this woman had confused learned and natural traits. She actually thought that her baby would walk, talk, dress, eat and act like a Brazilian merely because he was born in Brazil.

It took some convincing, but after more that an hour the woman admitted that she was simply caught up in the chic multicultural jargon of the day.

Far worse than confusion about natural and learned traits is confusion about the nature of our rights. The Rost case sets a dangerous precedent. And as more cases like it come along, we must resist the lure of “cultural diversity” and group-think at the expense of individual rights.

Peter W. Schramm is the executive director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and former Director of International Education in the U.S. Department of Education.