Appeals Court Allows Lesbian Mother To Seek Parental Rights

News Release: 
Monday, May 3, 2004

The American Civil Liberties Union today praised the Washington Court of Appeals for allowing a nonbiological mother the right to seek parental rights and visitation with her daughter after the mother’s relationship with the biological mother ended.

“This is wonderful news for gay parents and their children.  The court recognized that being a parent is not just about blood ties,” said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.  “When two people who have chosen to raise a child together break up, the children involved should not be denied the love and support of a parent simply because that parent doesn’t have a biological connection.”   

Sue Ellen Carvin lived with another woman in a marital-like relationship for 12 years.  During that time they decided to have a child together, with her partner giving birth to their daughter.  Carvin stayed at home serving as L.B.’s primary caregiver, and their child called her “Mama.”  Carvin bathed, dressed, and fed her child, disciplined and consoled her, and provided financial support.  When the child was almost six years old, the couple separated.  Her ex-partner eventually cut off all contact between Carvin and the child.

The court’s decision reverses a lower ruling, which held that Carvin could not petition for parental rights or even for visitation with her child.  The appeals court held that where an adult assumes the obligations of parenthood with the consent of the biological parent and has established a parental relationship with the child, she is a “de facto parent” and may seek visitation.  The court sent the case back to the trial court to give Carvin the opportunity to prove she was a de facto parent.

Carvin is represented by the Northwest Women’s Law Center.  The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief on her behalf.   Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and ACLU of Washington staff attorney Aaron Caplan wrote the brief.

The court’s decision comes just a week after the Maine Supreme Court sided with a nonbiological mother in a similar dispute.  Other states that have recognized visitation rights for nonbiological parents in same-sex relationships include New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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