Law and Order SVU’s twelfth season oscillates between moving episodes like “Branded” about a victim of gang rape who terrorizes her attackers fifteen years later and lackluster ones like the recently aired “Trophy”. This episode, which aired on November 3, 2010, on NBC, focuses on Detective Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) plight as she investigates the rape and murder of a woman found inside a washing machine at a Laundromat. The investigation leads Benson to a 1970s unresolved rape case. Benson talks to the rape victim’s daughter, Vivian Arliss (Maria Bello) and discovers that Vivian’s mother was raped around the time that Olivia’s mother was raped by someone using the same modus operandi. Olivia questions whether Vivian is her half-sister.

This is not the first time that Olivia uncovers personal information while in the course of her employment. During the show’s lengthy presence on prime time television, Olivia’s struggle with the knowledge that she is the product of her mother’s attack has been developed in a number of ways. For example, in Season Eight’s episode “Philadelphia“, Benson discovers she has a brother, Simon Marsden (Michael Weston), who might also be a rapist. A later episode in the same season, “Florida”, involves Benson in an investigation that she is conducting for Marsden to prove his innocence in a rape accusation. She discovers her brother was framed. The sibling relationship is not developed further in later seasons.

The current episode’s suggestion that Arliss might be Olivia’s half-sister is a bit of a stretch. The show’s success is due in part to the writers’ abilities to keep the show focused on the crimes and victims, with little attention to the personal lives of the SVU team. A 2002 article in Entertainment Weekly discusses that SVU experienced a rocky start because it focused on the detectives’ lives, rather than on the crimes at hand. Once the show was able to set a crime-based tone devoid of unnecessary drama, Nielsen ratings improved. However, the most recent episode reverted back to the show’s humble beginnings because it provided a far-fetched storyline and wrongfully portrayed an important legal issue, guardianship.

At the end of the episode, Vivian’s son arrives at the precinct with a letter from his mother giving Olivia guardianship rights. Guardianship is a formal legal agreement in which the court grants legal rights to an individual on behalf of a child. Regulation of guardianship rights varies among states.

 In New York, guardianship can be managed in four ways: the guardian of the person, guardian of property, guardian ad litem, and stand-by guardian. A guardian of the person makes a child’s daily decisions involving food, shelter, and education. In the case at bar, it is likely that Olivia will be the boy’s guardian of the person because Vivian’s whereabouts are unknown. However, a letter stating that Olivia is the child’s guardian does not suffice to bind Olivia legally as his guardian. A person can become a legal guardian in two ways: a parent can choose the person she/he wants as legal guardian for a child or any person or agency can ask a court to appoint a legal guardian for a child. Even if the former option is chosen, the child’s parent must fill out a form to begin the legal guardianship proceedings in Surrogate’s Court.

New York Family Court Law § 661 grants the court the power to determine whether a legal guardian is fit. Furthermore, the presiding judge over the case takes affirmative steps to inquire into the legal guardian’s fitness. Often, the potential legal guardian is visited by Administration for Children’s Services to ensure that he/she will provide the best care for the child. Once the court determines the legal guardian is apt to fulfill the duty, the court issues a letter in accordance with New York Family Court Law § 663.

Afterwards, the child’s caregiver can write the name of the legal guardian in these three documents: a designation, a deed of guardianship, or a will. Vivian is not dead. Therefore a will is not the proper way to appoint Olivia legally. Vivian should designate her as guardian or write a formal deed of guardianship. Even if the letter were in either of these formats, a Family Court or Surrogate Court Judge must approve the document before it is given to the legal guardian. Under New York law, Vivian’s letter does not legally transfer guardianship rights to Olivia.

This is not the first time that Olivia has been given legal guardianship rights over a person’s child involved in a case. In the Season Eleven episode “Savior”, a prostitute by the name of Gladys (Mischa Barton) gives Olivia the right to decide whether Gladys’ premature child should be taken off of life support. Once again, this significant issue is not addressed properly because Gladys does this by way of another letter. The child never makes another appearance on the show. Thus, it appears that this is Law and Order SVU’s modus operandi (pun intended) when it comes to handing Olivia Benson children. Not only does the show’s penchant for handing unwanted children to Olivia undermine legal guardianship, which should be recognized as a significant procedure in American society, it also questions the show’s credibility when creating storylines.

To read another review on the November 3 episode, click here.

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