Sunday, January 21, 2001

Courts catching up with reality

        She's a little girl. Not a symbol of anything. Not a crusade. Certainly not anybody's property. Bright, sensitive, the child of a divorce. Her mother wanted to make life as easy as possible for Elli. It took 4 1/2 years and about $70,000 to convince the courts.

        Elli was 20 months old when her parents, Janet Williams and Guy Willhite, divorced. Janet, who had assumed her husband's name when they were married, retrieved her maiden name with little difficulty. But then, the Green Township nurse wanted to add her name to Elli's.

        “I wanted her to grow up with an identity that included both her parents,” Janet says. “I just wanted to add my name to hers.” She thought it would be a cinch. Shared parenting. A shared name. Elli Williams-Willhite.

Clobbered in court
               Janet went before a magistrate without an attorney. And was creamed.

        Application denied.

        Guy Willhite's attorney argued there was no evidence that the change would be in the child's best interest. And, furthermore, there wouldn't have been any confusion if Janet had just kept her former husband's name. “Why would I keep the name of someone who doesn't like me?” Janet wonders.

        She appealed — this time with an attorney at her side — still a little shocked that this should be so complicated. It's not as if we have no divorces in this country. Or women who decline to use the names of their husbands, current or former. And she wasn't trying to remove Elli's father from her life or her name.

        Appeal denied.

        But Janet has a strong personality. And a certain confidence. For many years she has been an Air Care nurse, and soon will begin working on the ground with UC Medical Center's department of emergency medicine setting up clinical trials.

        She knows how to get things done.

        And this name change was one thing that had become very important to her.

"Child as chattel'
               So she bounced around Hamilton County's court system, winding up before Probate Court Judge Wayne Wilke, who said, among other things, “Granting the applicant's request could measurably affect a decrease in Elli's ties to her paternal family simply because of the strength of Mr. Willhite's convictions to oppose the change.”

        Janet's “strength of convictions” were not mentioned. Or, apparently, considered.

        The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear her appeal. And found in her favor, saying, the lower court decision “reinforces the child-as-chattel mentality.”

        This case, according to Janet's attorney Rebecca Kaye, “greatly expands Ohio's law and the criteria the courts will use in deciding cases like this one.”

        The justices wrote: “The name merely represents the truth that both parents created the child and that both parents have responsibility for that child.”

        So, it ended the way it started. With a little girl. Elli Williams-Willhite always writes her full name. Very carefully. She has had nearly a year to practice. “She's proud of who she is,” her mother says. “Plus, she doesn't have to explain who I am to other kids.”

        Elli Williams-Willhite's parents are a nurse and a police officer. Although she lives with her mother, she knows she is the daughter of both. So, if this child understands, you have to wonder why it took the courts so long to figure it out.

        E-mail Laura at or call (513) 768-8393.


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