California bill would let children have more than two parents

 

The Sacramento Bee

Beaver had June and Ward.

Ricky had Ozzie and Harriet.

Mom and Dad, same-sex couples or blended families, California law is clear: No more than two legal parents per child.

When adults fight over parenthood, a judge must decide which two have that right and responsibility – but that could end soon.

State Sen. Mark Leno is pushing legislation to allow a child to have multiple parents.

"The bill brings California into the 21st century, recognizing that there are more than Ozzie and Harriet families today," the San Francisco Democrat said.

Surrogate births, same-sex parenthood and assisted reproduction are changing society by creating new possibilities for nontraditional households and relationships.

Benjamin Lopez, legislative analyst for the Traditional Values Coalition, blasted Leno's bill as a new attempt to "revamp, redefine and muddy the waters" of family structure by a leader in the drive to legalize gay marriage.

"It comes as no surprise that he would try to say that a child has more than two parents – that's absurd," said Lopez, whose group calls itself a leading voice for Bible-based values.

Under Leno's bill, if three or more people who acted as parents could not agree on custody, visitation and child support, a judge could split those things up among them.

SB 1476 is not meant to expand the definition of who can qualify as a parent, only to eliminate the limit of two per child.

Under current law, a parent can be a man who signs a voluntary declaration of paternity, for example. It also can be a man who was married and living with a child's mother, or who took a baby into his home and represented the infant as his own.

Leno's bill, which has passed the Senate and is now in the Assembly, would apply equally to men or women, and to straight or gay couples.

Examples of three-parent relationships that could be affected by SB 1476 include:

• A family in which a man began dating a woman while she was pregnant, then raised that child with her for seven years. The youth also had a parental relationship with the biological father.

• A same-sex couple who asked a close male friend to help them conceive, then decided that all three would raise the child.

• A divorce in which a woman and her second husband were the legal parents of a child, but the biological father maintained close ties as well.

SB 1476 stemmed from an appellate court case last year involving a child's biological mother, her same-sex partner, and a man who had an affair with the biological mother and impregnated her while she was separated temporarily from her female lover.

Designating multiple parents in such cases could enhance the child's prospects for financial support, health insurance or Social Security benefits, thus reducing the state's potential financial responsibility, supporters say.

In bitter breakups involving two unfit or incapacitated parents, a judge might have more flexibility to keep a child out of foster care by recognizing the existence of another parent, Leno contends.

The key factor is a child's best interest: SB 1476 does not force judges to do anything, it only provides them with discretion to recognize multiple parents if doing so not only is beneficial, but is required for a child's well-being, Leno said.

Californians give judges great power to split families with the stroke of a pen, so there is a duty to do it right, said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. "And we can't get it right if we're forcing judges to rule against their judgment."

Opponents counter that the issue is complex and that allowing multiple parents in one section of law inevitably raises questions that could spark litigation in other sections.

Tax deductions, citizenship, probate, public assistance, school notifications and Social Security rights all can be affected by determinations of parenthood, notes the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists.

"This bill, in our opinion, if passed, will cause significant unintended consequences," said Diane Wasznicky, the group's president and a family law attorney in Sacramento.

Assemblyman Donald Wagner, an Irvine Republican who opposes SB 1476, noted it could spark litigation, say, in a case of a wrongful death of a child with four potential parents and determining who has a claim.

Karen Anderson, of the California Protective Parents Association, said the legislation could result in a child being bounced among multiple adults in a bitter family breakup.

"It's hard enough for children to be split up two ways, much less multiple ways," she said.

Attorney Catherine Sakimura of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a co-sponsor of SB 1476, said judges would be required under the bill to consider a child's stability in awarding custody and visitation.

SB 1476 states that concerns about child stability "may mean that not all parents share legal or physical custody."

Wasznicky counters that it makes no sense to declare someone a parent, essential to a youngster's well-being, but then "cut that person out" of the kid's life.

"Either someone is vital enough in a child's life to be labeled a 'parent' and have certain rights and obligations to the child, or the person is not," she contends.

Ellen Pontac, a Davis gay-rights activist, said she and her wife, Shelly Bailes, each had two children when they began their relationship 38 years ago. She understands how someone can function as a child's parent but accrue no legal rights. Government should accommodate changing times, she said.

"I just think that people should be able to create their own lives," she said.

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