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Who Is a Parent? Miller-Jenkins Custody Case in Washington Post

The Washington Post has a lengthy article on the child-custody case involving former partners Janet and Lisa Miller-Jenkins. (I’ve covered this case several times before.) The Post says:

These lawyers . . . are debating questions so profound that the answers have the power to affect legions of families gay and straight: Who is a parent? Who has the legal rights of a parent?

In the Miller-Jenkins case, those questions have been raised in Vermont, where state statutes explicitly recognize parental rights for same-sex couples in civil unions, and in Virginia, where they don’t. That discrepancy has left Isabella — and a growing number of children like her nationwide — on the legal battlefield of what one judge in the case called civil war.

The Post highlights another far-reaching aspect of the case (also pointed out by the Independent Gay Forum):

[Non-bio mom] Janet’s lawyers are pondering how to win a legal victory without losing in the court of public opinion. News footage of deputies wresting a sobbing Isabella from her biological mother to give to her former lesbian partner would set the cause of gay rights back just as surely as any loss in court, advocates on both sides agree.

Janet is, however, “less concerned about how mainstream America will react than she is about being reunited with Isabella.” It’s understandable that her first concern is her relationship with her child. Unlike her former partner Lisa, however, she is not abandoning her sense of self, turning to ultraconservative organizations for legal assistance, and declaring “Homosexuality is a sin.”

For the rest of us fighting for the rights of LGBT parents, though, the question becomes how we can make people see Janet not merely as “former lesbian partner” but rather “legal mother.” There’s not a simple answer, except for us to continue making our families, and our connections to them, biological or not, visible.

The Post, too, ignores the fact that Janet will likely not get full custody, so it’s not a matter of “wresting” Isabella away permanently. As Janet’s mother says:

I can’t see ripping Isabella away from [Lisa’s] life. It would be unfair. Isabella deserves to be in Janet’s life, but not at the cost of taking her out of Lisa’s life. She needs to be in both their lives. But how they work it out, the logistics of it, is a nightmare. I wouldn’t even know how to do it. It’s just such a shame that all this time has gone by.

I wish the family luck in finding a solution, for Isabella’s sake. Looking at the wider ramifications, however, the case underscores how the patchwork of state regulations pertaining to same-sex relationship recognition, the “now you are, now you aren’t” fluctuation as we travel and move, won’t work in the long run.

In the short run, take heed from this situation. Even if you live in a state that recognizes both same-sex parents without needing an adoption, consider getting a court order or adoption anyway. Not only could this help in any unfortunate custody matters, but could help even committed couples dealing with other jurisdictions. As Cathy Sakimura of the National Center for Lesbian Rights pointed out in her interview on Mombian last week:

We do strongly recommend that everyone who is not a biological parent obtain an adoption or court order of parentage, even in states such as Massachusetts. If you do not have such a judgment, it is possible that you will experience difficulties in having your parent-child relationship honored when traveling to other states and countries or when dealing with the federal government. If the federal government does not legally recognize you as a parent, your children would be ineligible for social security benefits in the event of your death, you would not be able to obtain a passport for your child without your child’s legally recognized parent, and your children may be denied other federal benefits.

(Crossposted from Mombian.)

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