Imagine that you, a parent of sound mind and body, are moving cross-country. You've had enough of California and want to try New England.
The children, however, don't want to move. They like the weather, their friends, the school, the usual.
You argue about it, of course; that's what families do. Eventually you decide that the 17-year-old has a right to stay with her aunt and uncle because she is, after all, one year away from being on her own. But the 12-year-old must come along.
Rebelling, the boy runs away. But when the state finds him, they do not return him. Instead, they grant your son asylum in California. Asylum from you.
Or maybe it wasn't California.
Perhaps you have emigrated to a socialist contry and seven months later, disillusioned, want to come home. But this time the state grants your 12-year-old political asylum to save him from a lifetime of materialism, capitalism -- who knows what? -- in the United States.
If you can imagine these situations, you can feel what has happened to the Polovchak family of Chicago and the Ukraine. The Polovchaks, five of them, emigrated by a family member who promised them a leg up into American life. Now, disappointed, the parents want to go back, taking Walter and his younger brother with them.
But the U.S. government has offered Walter asylum and a lawyer and the temporary custody of the state. Two parents, who have neither abused nor neglected their son, have temporarily lost their right to make decisions for their boy, for reasons that are blatantly political.
If it happened to an American family, it would be an outrage. If it happened to an American family in the Soviet Union, it would make furious headlines. It goes against the basic American principle of keeping the state -- whenever possible -- out of family life.
"There is nothing that any of us would find in the current situation to justify the state entertaining this case," says Yale Law School's Joseph Goldstein, who has written extensively about parents' and childrens' rights. "We don't put someone else in the place of the parents unless they are disqualified. These parents did not abuse or neglect their children."
Psychiatrist Allen Stone, who teaches family law at Harvard, had very much the same reaction. "This is totally outside the range of what family law and family courts ought to be doing. The notion that they would interfere in an ongoing, intact family, boggles the mind. It just boggles the mind."
The fact is that we have given much more weight to this Ukrainian boy's testimony than to any American boy of the same age. We have given their parents' views much less weight, because they want him to return with them to the Soviet Union.
But it is almost impossible to assess the boy's own frame of mind and values. Is he a 12-year-old who merely likes the ice cream and bicycles of America?
"There is lots of food here," he said. "You can buymany things and I liked school."
Is he,like so many his age, testing the limits, tasting his first tidbits of rebellion? Or can he be mature enough to choose political freedom above family?
It is equally difficult to determine what is best for the boy. There are psychological terrors as well as exhilarations for a child who "wins" such an early and terminal battle with his parents. There are also troubles ahead for a child who returns unwillingly, an embarrassment, to the Ukraine.
But our laws assume (except in rare instances) that the parent is the best judge of the state of mind, the needs and the future of the child. Whether we approve or not, we do not interfere unless they have been proven unfit.
No matter what fantasies we have about rescuing Walter Polovchak, no matter how certain we are that his parents are wrong, we can't have two standards of law -- one for Americans and one for Soviet immigrants.
In a Chicago courtroom on Aug. 4, Judge Joseph Mooney ruled that the boy should remain in the custody of the state, and the care of his aunt and uncle, for five more weeks. But his intention is clearly to reunite this family, "whatever the political consequences." And he is right.
The irony is that we criticize, even denounce, the power of the state in the Soviet Union, the way it interferes in private lives. We pride ourselves on being different, pride ourselves on protecting the integrity of the family from the state. But in the case of Walter Polovchak we very nearly lost that difference.