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 that 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 people in the courtroom broke into applause.
Gregory leaped to hug his new parents and four of his new siblings. The couple has four other children who were not present.
Kirk said the boy's biological mother had "lied consistently" during the legal battle that 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 (his mother) and it is certainly in his best interests that her parental rights be terminated immediately."
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."
The case, a test over the rights of parents and the rights of a child, was believed to mark the first time that a child hired an attorney and initiated legal action to sever his relationship with his mother and father. Gregory's father, Ralph, did not contest the action and agreed before trial that Gregory should live with the Russes.
Harry Morall II, a lawyer for Mrs. Kingsley, said his client "should have been judged by her lifestyle now, not in the past." He said he would file an appeal.
Elaborating on a point made by his co-counsel, Jane Carey, during summation, Morall said he felt that the impoverished status of his client contrasted unfavorably with that of the adopting family, which is middle class.
During her summation, Carey said: "Nobody ever sat this little boy down and explained to him how hard it can be to be a poor person in America. This boy thinks it's in his interest not to be poor anymore. He has to deal with that someday. You cannot pick and choose who your parents are."
During cross-examination, Morall tried to get Gregory to acknowledge that Mrs. Kingsley worked 12-hour shifts at her waitressing jobs to try to keep food on the table for her three boys and only put them into foster care when she could no longer support them.
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 "thought she forgot about me."
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 would not 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.
Gregory also said he preferred to be called Shawn, not Gregory. "I hated the name Gregory," he said.
The 12-year-old 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.
Dawn Harkness, a director of the National Child Rights Alliance, added: "I think there's concern this will open a floodgate of 'Nintendo deprivation' lawsuits. But I think it will give hope to thousands of children stuck in foster care. It's a start in giving abused children some attempt to take control of their lives."
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 eight 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 made 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 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 had 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."
Mrs. Kingsley's lawyers attempted 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 denied the charge.
Mrs. Kingsley was not in court for closing arguments and the ruling Friday. Morall, her lawyer, told the judge just before the ruling that she had become ill and left. She did not return.
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."