A judge on Friday ruled in favor of a 12-year-old boy who set a legal precedent by going to court to "divorce" the biological parents he said had mistreated and abandoned him.
Circuit Judge Thomas S. Kirk told Gregory Kingsley he was now formally adopted by his foster parents. "Gregory, you're the son of Mr. and Mrs. Russ at this moment," he said as the courtroom broke into applause.
Kirk said the boy's biological mother had "lied consistently" during the legal battle Gregory initiated to sever his relationship with her.
"I believe by clear and convincing evidence, almost beyond a reasonable doubt in this case, that this child has been abandoned . . . and neglected by Rachel Kingsley and it is certainly in his best interests that her parental rights be terminated immediately."
Gregory, who now calls himself Shawn Russ, had flushed cheeks and a huge smile but no immediate comment after two lengthy days of intensely emotional courtroom testimony carried live on national television.
"Hey, brother," he said joyously as he turned to John Russ, one of his eight new brothers and sisters.
The family surrounded him, and his lawyer, Jerri Blair, gave him a bright blue jersey and cap that said "Shawn Russ" and bore the number 9, a reference to the number of children now in the Russ family.
Gregory's adoptive parents, George and Lizabeth Russ, said they were delighted. "We just hugged," Mrs. Russ said of Gregory. "It was really exciting. I didn't expect it would happen that fast."
Harry Morall II, a lawyer for Mrs. Kingsley, said his client "should have been judged by her lifestyle now, not in the past."
Mrs. Kingsley was not in the courtroom for closing arguments and the ruling. Morall told the judge before he announced his ruling that she had become ill and left the courtroom. She never reappeared.
Later, at Morall's office she said, sobbing: "I just want Gregory to know that I love him very much. He is welcome to come home anytime he likes. He will always be my son. All I ever wanted was a chance to be with him."
The case was considered precedent-setting because the lawsuit was pursued by a 12-year-old boy and the ruling gave a minor increased standing in a court of law. Lawyers say they deal with similar custody cases frequently, but the legal action is usually initiated by a foster parent or by the state.
The judge's ruling culminated a day in which Gregory took the witness stand and nervously recalled bouncing from his mother's home to foster homes until he finally "thought she forgot about me."
As his mother wept in the courtroom, Gregory recounted a joyless childhood filled with uncertainty and abandonment. He said his mother was often out late drinking and kept marijuana "in a brown box on a table in the living room."
When asked why he wanted to live permanently with his foster family, Gregory said: "I'm doing it for me, so I can be happy."
The brown-haired, pale boy recalled years when he wouldn't hear from his mother even at Christmas.
He said his first memory was of his dad leaving the family. He said he loved his foster parents but did not love his mother.
The boy said he preferred to be called Shawn because "I hated the name Gregory."
The boy contended in his lawsuit that his mother's abuse and neglect led him to seek legal freedom so he could be adopted by the Russes, with whom he has lived for almost a year.
Mrs. Kingsley wanted him back. Some legal observers said the case could affect the ability of children to protect themselves from parental abuse or neglect.
David S. Liederman, head of the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, D.C., praised the ruling.
"This landmark case is a giant step in recognizing that in certain cases of abuse and neglect, children in their own right will now legally be recognized in court," he said.
The judge, who had given Gregory legal standing in court, decided the issues of parental rights and adoption without a jury.
Russ, who is a lawyer, testified about how he, his wife and children took Gregory in as a foster child after the boy had spent about eight months at the Lake County Boys Ranch.
Russ said he first saw Gregory sitting and reading a book at the ranch while other boys played around him. "I just had an immediate feeling he needed somebody. He needed help," Russ said.
After he and his wife met with the boy and decided to become his foster parents, they began to think of a legal adoption because Gregory's parents had no contact with him for 18 months.
When the mother objected, Russ and the boy hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit in Gregory's name.
The Russes and others have testified about the unstable home life of Mrs. Kingsley, her two younger sons and her fiance, Steve Hack, in St. Louis.
Russ said Mrs. Kingsley's estranged husband, Ralph, told him several months ago that he had to rush to Hack's house with his gun to rescue Mrs. Kingsley, "who had blood from the top of her head to her kneecaps."
Kingsley did not contest the lawsuit.
Mrs. Kingsley's lawyers tried to show that the Russes had tried to prevent the Kingsley family from reuniting by moving to adopt Gregory quickly and by discouraging contact with his biological parents. The Russes vehemently denied this charge.
Gregory was taken from Mrs. Kingsley by his father at age 4 and she did not see him for almost five years. Gregory claims his father was an alcoholic who abused him. The boy rejoined his mother in 1989 when he was 8 until she placed him in foster care again about two years ago.