The boy we have all come to know as Sean Moorehead has been one of the greatest mysteries to have occurred in the life of Agnes Moorehead. Many of us have taken a run at finding out who he was, where he came from and, most importantly, where he finally ended up. Last night as I was backstage during our annual Christmas concert I had an epiphany of sorts. It happened, oddly enough, during the performance of the song "What Child Is This." My epiphany was this:
We have all operated under the illusion that "foster care" was the relationship that "Sean" had with Agnes, but what if it wasn't? I put it to you that Agnes was not "Sean's" foster mother but his legal guardian.
To understand the difference between the two I launched myself into the history of "Foster Care" and "Legal Guardianship." I had no idea that what I would find would completely alter the way I viewed this chapter of not only "Sean's" life but Agnes' as well.
In the beginning of the movement toward placing children with families unrelated to them who would not be adopting them the aim was to remove children from institutions. The institutions were not conducive to establishing any kind of mental health for a child. We've seen it today in children adopted from eastern European countries who have attachment disorders as a result of being institutionalized. Foster care was an excellent option for these children but it was considered temporary because ties were maintained with the birth parents of the child. This meant that in theory the placement was temporary but in actuality it could be lengthy depending on the circumstances. By 1950 the statistic show that children in family foster care outnumbered those in institutions for the first time. Adoption meant wholesale family substitution. Foster care did not attempt that at all.
What does this have to do with Agnes and Sean? Simple. Foster parents were not autonomous. They were expected to provide safe haven and love for the child at risk, but they were also responsible for keeping that child in contact with relatives and agency workers. This is something that appears to never have happened with Sean, at all. I, for one, cannot see Agnes submitting herself to the scrutiny of any kind of social worker. Given the time Sean came into her life that scrutiny would have resulted in him being removed because of the instability in the home. We know that Sean and his twin sister had allegedly been in "two or three foster homes." If they had already been in two or three foster homes scrutiny was happening. So, Jack was allegedly an alcoholic and abusive, Agnes was having an affair with Robert Gist and by the time Sean was living with her so was Robert, yet Robert and Agnes were unmarried. All of this would have been completely clear to a social worker. A social worker would not be amused and Sean would have been removed. We know he wasn't. That is a fact.
The key word that struck me was autonomy. A foster parent has to have permission to obtain health care, education, etc... but Agnes appears to have had total autonomy with Sean. She routinely talked about health care needs, dentist appointments and his education. Sean was sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and Wales. None of this could have occurred if Agnes was merely a "foster mother." I began exploring other alternatives because we know Sean was was never legally adopted by Agnes and I came across something that had never once crossed my mind, legal guardianship.
We know or have been told via Charles Tranberg's book that Agnes said the first thing she did once she got legal custody of Sean was to take him to a pediatrician. It is not necessary for a legal guardian to have custody of a child but it does occur. Guardianship suggests a higher degree of both leeway and obligation regarding major or significant decisions about the care of a child. When a child is adopted the birth parent's legal rights to the child are dissolved and the child becomes a member of the adopting family. That means that this child has the same rights to support and of inheritance as a birth child. When guardianship is granted the birth parents rights are merely held in abeyance. The guardian has no obligation to support the child, although we know Agnes did support Sean, and the child enjoys no inheritance rights to the estate of the guardian. Because the birth parent's rights are not severed, the child's formal and legalities to the family origin remain intact. It also means that, like foster care, once the child comes of legal age they guardian is no longer responsible for them. Guardianship has been a means of not taking the final step of adopting for years and is often used as means of having a child without having the permanent tie of adoption. The one thing it does require is a court issuing the order of legal guardianship to the legal guardian. For this one needs a lawyer. Perhaps that lawyer was Franklin Rohner? He did work exclusively for the entertainment industry. Agnes once used the excuse that she couldn't adopt Sean because she was a single woman. Well, Joan Crawford was a single woman who successfully adopted children and I'm sure not the only one. Point is she could have adopted Sean at any point but chose not to and I think in the end actually having legal responsibility for another human being is daunting.
The other thing that struck me is that foster children are not placed out of state. I think perhaps initially Sean was a foster child and that Agnes very quickly got legal custody of him. Again, all of this would have to have happened in the state of California. That means Sean was born in California and most likely in Los Angeles. There are some things about Sean we have to accept as truth, or as near to truth as can be. He was sickly. He had a twin sister. He had been in foster care before. He graduated from Le Lycee Francais in 1967. He was from California and his birthday is allegedly January 6, 1949. He didn't like being called Sean and wanted to be called Eric but we don't know if either were his legal names. He disappeared. Perhaps this is where we begin to find out who Sean was and foster an affection for the child who became the enigma.