Estranged lesbian couple fight over parental rights

A lesbian couple in Houston whose eight-year relationship ended in March are in a legal battle over whether the woman who adopted the child born to her partner should be recognized as the girl's parent. A Galveston County associate judge earlier upheld the adoption, approved in 2001, but a district judge is considering an appeal. The judge heard oral arguments earlier this week.

The 6-year-old's biological mother, Julie Anne Hobbs, claims the adoption by her former partner, Janet Kathleen Van Stavern, is void. She says among the requirements for a child to be adopted under the Texas Family Code is for the child's relationship with biological parents to be terminated or for the parent whose rights were not terminated to be married to the person seeking custody; same-sex marriages are not recognized in Texas. "The granting of this adoption was directly contrary to and in violation of Texas law and, therefore, void as a matter of law," Hobbs's attorneys, Marie Trefethern and Christine Mangle, argued in a legal brief. "The court had no authority to grant the adoption as Janet Kathleen Van Stavern could not be the 'spouse' of Julie Anne Hobbs nor the 'stepparent' to the child."

Van Stavern says it is too late for Hobbs to challenge the adoption. Van Stavern's attorney, Shannon Warren, said Hobbs could have challenged the adoption for six months after it was approved. Once that period is over, Warren says, Hobbs has no grounds to fight the adoption. "They should have attacked the adoption decree just like anyone else does," Warren said Wednesday. "Now it is years later. They just sat behind the law until the relationship ended and then came up with all these different positions."

Jerry Simoneaux, whose Houston law firm specializes in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues, said the issue before the court isn't a gay rights issue but a parental rights issue. "I hope that the Galveston court doesn't even consider the gay or lesbian issue and just looks at this as two parents," he said, adding that he hopes the court "truly looks at what is in the best interest of the child." If the court agrees with Hobbs's position, Simoneaux said it could place adoptive parents who are not married to a biological parent on "shaky ground." "If this court decides that a second-parent adoption by a gay or lesbian parent is void, that is going to send a very chilling message to all those parents out there who are reliant on that relationship being kept stable," he said. "The gay and lesbian communities are going to be watching this case very closely."

Trefethern said Hobbs has had to put some of her personal beliefs aside in order to do what she feels is best for her daughter. She said Hobbs doesn't necessarily agree with the laws in place but wants to ensure her daughter's parentage is protected. The rights of the man who donated the semen for the artificial insemination by Hobbs were terminated. Van Stavern legally adopted the girl when she was a 3-year-old. She has continued to provide $400 a month in child support and visit with the girl since her split from Hobbs. "The fact that Janet Kathleen Van Stavern and Julie Anne Hobbs were in a
homosexual relationship is not really the issue in this case," Trefethern said in a legal filing. "If Janet Kathleen Van Stavern had been the male boyfriend of Julie Anne Hobbs, the adoption would also be void, as no spouse or stepparent existed as intended by the legislature in order for the child to be adoptable."

Simoneaux said Texas allows for stepparent adoptions of children but doesn't have an option for people who are not married, sometimes referred to as a second-parent adoption. "Because there is no law in Texas on second-parent adoptions, these adoptions are vulnerable, and I am very concerned, he said. "We don't really know where we stand on it."

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