Former partners take custody case to appeals court
October 07 2003 12:00 AM ET
A woman who raised a child from birth to age 6 while living with the girl's biological mother has asked the Washington State court of appeals to recognize her rights as a parent. If the court agrees, it could create a new class of parent in the state. The three judges who heard the arguments Friday gave no indication when they would rule.
Sue Ellen Carvin, who goes by "Mian," sued her former partner, Page Britain, in King County superior court last November, alleging that Britain had unfairly cut off access to Britain's biological daughter, identified in court papers as L.B.
The two had been together for about six years when they decided to raise a child together. Britain was artificially inseminated and gave birth in 1995. For the next several years Carvin stayed home to raise the girl, who called her "Mama" and Britain "Mommy." But a year and a half ago, Britain and Carvin split up. Britain married the sperm donor and subsequently barred Carvin from seeing L.B.
"This is an important case," Carvin's attorney, Patricia Novotny, told the judges. "It's important because a human relationship hangs in the balance."
Court rulings in a handful of other states have recognized the parental rights of same-sex former partners, according to the Northwest Women's Law Center, which is representing Carvin. The Massachusetts supreme court, for example, ruled that a lesbian who helped her partner raise a son had become a de facto parent and was entitled to visitation rights when the couple broke up. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that case in 1999.
But Britain's lawyer, Gayle Murray Brenchley, argued that extending parental rights to Carvin would infringe on the rights of biological parents. She drew an analogy: Say a woman has a child with a man, then divorces the man, remarries, and divorces again. Typically, she said, the second ex-husband-- though he may have acted like the child's parent for a time--is not granted parental rights.
"How many parents is a child going to have?" she asked. "What my client is doing is fighting for the rights of parents in making decisions in the best interests of their children."
Murray Brenchley suggested that Carvin could have adopted the girl if she wanted legal rights, but Novotny responded that that is no reason to deny Carvin's parental rights now, pointing out that the court has never established whether Carvin had the financial resources to adopt.
Court documents indicate that Britain cut off Carvin because Carvin had been letting the girl stay up late and took her to a tattoo parlor, among other things. Nancy Sapiro, a staff attorney with the Northwest Women's Law Center, said Carvin disputes some of the allegations but did not get a chance to defend
herself against them in court because the judge threw out her case.
In appealing, Carvin is asking the judges to acknowledge her rights as a parent, which would enable her to go back to King County superior court and press her claim there by showing that she should be allowed to see the child. She is being supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.