Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Delaware Supreme Court upholds de facto parent statute and upholds joint custody award

Two years ago, in an opinion I criticized extensively, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that a woman whose partner was a child's only legal parent (through adoption) lacked standing to obtain custody or visitation when the couple split up. In response to that decision, the Delaware legislature amended its definition of "parent" to include de facto parents, a move I praised as extensively as I had criticized the previous court ruling.

A de facto parent in Delaware is one who:

(1) Has had the support and consent of the child's parent or parents who fostered the formation and establishment of a parent-like relationship between the child and the de facto parent;
(2) Has exercised parental responsibility for the child [as defined elsewhere to include meeting the child's physical, mental, and emotional needs]; and
(3) Has acted in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to haveestablished a bonded and dependent relationship with the child that is parental in nature.

The legislature made the amendment retroactive so that the mother whose loss prompted the statutory reform could refile for custody, which she did. The trial court ruled earlier this year that Carol Guest (a pseudonym) was the de facto parent of the child, A.N.S, and it awarded her joint custody. The adoptive mother, Lynn Smith (also a pseudonym), appealed.

In a ruling released this morning under the name Smith v. Guest, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld the joint custody award. Smith had appealed on several grounds and lost on all of them. Of greatest significance, she challenged the constitutionality of the statute, alleging that it violated her right to raise her child as set out in the US Supreme Court case of Troxel v. Granville. The Delaware court got it exactly right when it disposed of Smith's argument as follows:

The issue here is not whether the Family Court has infringed Smith’s fundamental parental right to control who has access to ANS by awarding Guest co-equal parental status. Rather, the issue is whether Guest is a legal “parent” of ANS who would also have parental rights to ANS—rights that are co-equal to Smith’s. This is not a case, like Troxel, where a third party having no claim to a parent-child relationship (e.g., the child’s grandparents) seeks visitation rights. Guest is not “any third party.” Rather, she is a (claimed) de facto parent who (if her claim is established, as the Family Court found it was) would also be a legal “parent” of ANS. Because Guest, as a legal parent, would have a co-equal “fundamental parental interest” in raising ANS, allowing Guest to pursue that interest through a legally-recognized channel cannot unconstitutionally infringe Smith’s due process rights. In short, Smith’s due process claim fails for lack of a valid premise.

I could not have said it better myself. I hope this reasoning resonates throughout the country and provides an alternate narrative to the one that has prevailed in some states that take a cramped view -- and certainly not a child's view -- of what makes a parent.

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