Court rulings that affect same-sex couples raising children often come in the context of heterosexual families. When you think about it, that's inevitable, since there are so many more heterosexuals and they, too, live in a variety of family forms. Well, a decision from the Tennessee Court of Appeals last month, In re Shleby L.B., falls into this category, and the news is not good. (For a Colorado ruling involving heterosexuals that bodes very well for same-sex couples there, read this post from last April).
A child, Shelby L.B., was born to a married heterosexual couple in 1999. When the couple divorced two years later, the child went with her mother and the father had no visitation rights but could petition for them in the future after completing alcohol and drug rehab. The mother later became friends with a 42-year-old man, J.E.N, who began acting as a father to the child when she was five years old. In 2008, the mother and J.E.N. filed a joint petition to terminate the parental rights of the father and allow J.E.N. to adopt the child. The petition alleged that the child called J.E.N., "Dad," and that he supported her financially and spent a substantial amount of time with her forming a parent-child bond. Shortly thereafter, the mother and J.E.N. filed an amended complaint including the fact that J.E.N. had exercised physical custody of the child for substantial times and that the child was presently living with him during the school week. There is no indication that the mother and J.E.N. ever lived together or that they had a romantic relationship.
The father hired a lawyer, opposed the petition, and asked for visitation with the child. Subsequently, he filed a motion to dismiss the petition, arguing that the parental rights of both parents must be terminated before anyone other than a stepparent can adopt a child. The trial court ruled in the father's favor, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Here are the Tennessee laws that doomed the petition filed in this case. A biological parent cannot file a petition to terminate the rights of another parent, so the mother could not file to terminate the father's rights. That left J.E.N. He could file an adoption petition, but according to the court's interpretation of the Tennessee statute, he could only do so if he were seeking to terminate the rights of the mother as well as the father. The only exception in the statute is for a stepparent adoption, and since the mother and J.E.N. were not married, he was not the child's stepparent.
This ruling likely dooms any second parent adoption. That's because, of course, the biological parent seeks to retain, not surrender, her parental rights when her partner adopts. The only remaining possibility might be a joint petition by a same-sex couple in which the bio mom gives up her rights as a bio parent but simultaneously gets them back as an adoptive parent. A single person may adopt in Tennessee, but it is not certain that the court would say this means two single persons may adopt together.
I wish we knew more about these people. I am curious about the relationship between the mother and J.E.N. There are plenty of examples of LGBT co-parenting arrangements between other than romantic partners. Since adoption requires individualized assessment of a child's best interests, I believe these arrangements should be able to be formalized through adoption. Plus I realize that I cannot even be certain the adults in this case are heterosexual. I know the mother was once married to a man, and I know there is nothing about her sexual orientation that is reported in the opinion, but it's not impossible that her friendship with J.E.N. is not sexual because one or both of them is gay. (It is also possible the two have a sexual relationship; all we know is that they are not married to each other and they appear not to live together). So I am curious, but in the end the issue should be whether the adoption is in the child's best interests, and that is what the court refuses to address because it says such an adoption is impossible.
This case is also a reminder that when we lose second-parent adoption it is not inherently an anti-gay ruling; it may simply be a narrow reading of an adoption statute. Since adoption customarily does terminate the rights of the existing parents, statutes were written in a way that produces that result automatically. When a court reads such a statute to prohibit a parent retaining rights while adding a second parent, that may simply be reluctance to construe a statute beyond its literal wording. Of course many state courts have read their adoption statutes broadly enough to encompass second parent adoption without terminating the first parent's rights. Thank goodness for that.