Baby Maranda Case: 1994

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Baby Maranda Case: 1994

Defendant: Jennifer Ireland
Plaintiff: Steven Smith
Plaintiff Claim: Custody of his daughter, Maranda
Chief Defense Lawyer: Julie Field
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Sharon-Lee Edwards
Judge: Raymond R. Cashen
Place: Macomb County, Michigan
Date of Trial: June 27, 1994
Decision: Custody was granted to Steven Smith

SIGNIFICANCE: The judge's surprising decision granting custody of Baby Maranda to her father seemed to be a setback for single women struggling to provide a decent education for themselves as well as maintain a family.

Early in the summer of 1990, Jennifer Ireland of Harrison Township, Michigan, was just 15 years old. Her new boyfriend, Steven Smith, was 16. After they dated for two months, they became sexually intimate. Soon Jennifer thought she might be pregnant and thought she should take a home pregnancy test. The result was positive. "I felt like this was just a dream, and I was going to wake up, and it was all going to go away," she said later. "I was a straight-A student, never did anything wrong. This was not happening to me."

Smith couldn't believe it either. After thinking it over for four days, he told Jennifer he didn't have time for a girlfriend. As a star football player, he had to concentrate on the coming season. They agreed that she would have an abortion.

At an abortion clinic two months later, Jennifer, a Roman Catholic, changed her mind. "I saw all these girls talking about it like it was no big deal," she later admitted, "but I started thinking that I was going to burn in hell for even considering this. So I left."

Although most of Steve Smith's and Jennifer Ireland's schoolmates knew who the father-to-be was, Steve steered clear of Jennifer during her pregnancy. When Maranda Kate Ireland Smith was born on April 22, 1991, he went to the hospital to see her and her now 16-year-old mother, but refused to hold the baby. Putting Maranda in foster care for three weeks, Jennifer thought about adoption. She decided to raise the child herself. Her mother, a divorced 46-year-old who was a professional nanny, and her 13-year-old sister agreed to help.

Steve Smith was furious. "He said he didn't want her," reported Jennifer, "and I shouldn't want her. He said I was doing the worst thing in the world."

Jennifer had missed two months of her sophomore year in high school. But now, with her mother and sister baby-sitting, she concentrated on her studies and finished in June 1991 with a 3.98 grade point average.

For about a year, Maranda's father stayed away. Then he began to show up to see her more and more often. During this time, he provided no financial support. Finally, Jennifer filed for child support, but none was forthcoming.

In January 1993, Jennifer obtained a court order garnishing $62 a week from Smith's meager income as a high-school student doing odd jobs. However, he managed to have the child support payments cut to $12.

Alleging that Smith grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her, and shoved her into a wall during an argument over visitation rights on Christmas Eve 1992, Jennifer charged Maranda's father with assault. He countersued for custody of the toddler.

In June 1993 when Jennifer Ireland graduated from Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in suburban Detroit, she stood third in her class. The University of Michigan awarded her $11,000 in scholarships as an entering freshman. She packed up Maranda, her toddler toys and clothing, and they headed for the college in Ann Arbor. There, using personal savings, Jennifer Ireland placed her child in a day-care center for 35 hours a week while she attended classes full time. The day-care facility was one recommended by the university.

In March 1994, Steve Smith's countersuit for custody came before Judge Raymond R. Cashen of Macomb County Circuit Court. In the hearing, Smith's lawyer, Sharon-Lee Edwards, attacked Jennifer Ireland's behavior as a mother. Her accusations included drug and alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct. Jennifer denied all such allegations.

Judge Cashen appointed two independent experts to appraise Maranda's situation. The Psychodiagnostic and Family Services Clinic found that Maranda looked to her mother for "guidance, discipline, and the necessities of life" and that she had a strong attachment to both parents. The Macomb County Friends of the Court, a social services agency that performed investigations related to court cases, found nothing to condemn in the environment in which Maranda was being raised. Both organizations recommended that the little girl stay with her mother. The judge himself observed that the three-year-old had lived all her life with her mother, who was her primary care giver, and that such a disruption of family life as a change of custody would be disturbing to her. However, the judge ruled on June 27, 1994, that Maranda should be handed over to her father because her mother had placed her in a licensed day-care facility for 35 hours a week in order to attend college classes. "There is no way," concluded the 69-year-old jurist, "that a single parent attending an academic program at an institution as prestigious as the University of Michigan can do justice to their [sic] studies and the raising of an infant child. A child gains the feeling of security, a safe place, by virtue of permanence." The judge added that he was skeptical about how the child's emotional well-being would be affected by the long-term impact of "strangers."

Child-care experts were astonished. "It was unusual," said Henry Baskin, who, as a state bar commissioner, had helped draft Michigan's child custody act, "for the court to ignore a recommendation from two separate agencies who concluded that the child should be with the mother."

In the same week that Judge Cashen's order was handed down, Smith was arraigned on Jennifer's charge of assault. The domestic violence was "not pertinent" to his decision, remarked Judge Cashen. "The parties in their youthful way apparently crashed or mauled one another," he said. "It is all superfluous." The judge also seemed unimpressed by the fact that Maranda's father had sought custody of her only after her mother pressed the domestic violence charge against him and hauled him into court for child support.

The household to which the judge consigned Maranda was that of Smith's parents, with whom he was living while attending Macomb Community College and working part-time cutting lawns. His homemaker mother would take care of the childa provision, said the judge, that was better than having the child "supervised a great part of the time by strangers. Under the future plans of the father, the minor child will be raised and supervised by blood relatives."

The day after he ordered Maranda handed over to her father, Judge Cashen, himself a Roman Catholic who had seven children and 16 grandchildren, told a reporter that "family values" were his "whole background." The written opinion he sent down, he said, was based not on any allegations regarding behavior, but on the fact that the child was put in day care by the mother even though the father's mother was capable of taking care of her.

Within days, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Organization for Women (NOW), the United Auto Workers (UAW), and several other national groups filed a joint friend-of-the court brief on behalf of Jennifer Ireland. The New York Times ran a major editorial excoriating Judge Cashen. It concluded:

"Judge Cashen's order stands: an affront and threat to the millions of women for whom day care is the difference between ignorance and an education, poverty and a decent income, dependency and self-reliance. In stigmatizing Jennifer Ireland for her ambition and initiative, Judge Cashen stigmatizes all of them."

After considering the brief, the Michigan Court of Appeals delayed the Judge's order. On August 9, 1994, it granted a stay of the transfer of custody of baby Maranda pending review of the case. In November 1995, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision and gave custody of Maranda to Jennifer. in 1996, Jennifer dropped out of college to take care of her daughter and to prevent any further custody battles. She has taken classes on a part-time basis.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Helton, Charmagne. "Mom Loses Custody Over Day Care." USA Today (July 27, 1994): 1.

Leavaitt, Paul. "Mom Can Keep Tot for Now." USA Today (August 8, 1994): 3.

Stone, Andrea. "Custody Cases: Growing Pains-Judges' Jobs Getting Trickier." USA Today (July 29, 1994): 3.