Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Michigan court to weigh in on right of nonbio mom to see her children

It's still the same old story. This time in Michigan. Nonbio mom Renee Harmon has been prevented from seeing her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old twin sons by their bio mom Tammy Davis. Harmon and Davis were partners for 19 years until their split up in 2008. According to one news source, Harmon saw the children on a regular basis after the couple split up, but Davis then stopped the contact. Last September, when Harmon entered the home she had once shared with Davis and the children without Davis's permission, Davis got a restraining order against her. Harmon talks about her family in this news clip, complete with pictures of the happy couple and their children at various ages.

Harmon has filed a court action seeking joint custody of the children. There's no appellate court ruling on this issue in Michigan, but more than 20 years ago the court there recognized the doctrine of "equitable parenthood" to confirm the parentage of a husband who was not the biological father of the four-year-old child born to his wife. Unfortunately, the court later refused to extend that doctrine to a man who thought he was the father of two children born to his nonmarital female partner.

In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court read the state's Defense of Marriage constitutional amendment very broadly as banning employee domestic partner benefits. (Here's my post about it.) And of course all the press coverage about the Harmon case notes that Michigan does not recognize same-sex marriage. But the courts need to separate marriage from legal parentage. A child's bond to a parent does not turn on whether that parent is married to the child's other parent.

In the 1970s and 80s, if custody rights for lesbian mothers defending against their former husbands had turned on whether the court was willing to validate the mother's new same-sex relationship, then many of those mothers would have lost custody of their children. They won when they could convince courts to rule on the child's best interests and not on the mother's lesbian relationship. Fast forward to the 21st century and we need courts to rule on the parent-child relationships created in a family, not on the perception that a ruling to preserve an existing parent-child relationship is a vote for same-sex marriage. Let's hope the Michigan courts can get it right.

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