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Lesbian mother
fights for child custody in Delaware

Lesbian mother
fights for child custody in Delaware

The nonbiological mother of triplets has asked the state's high court to award her full custody.

In a case that mirrors several other recent court actions across the country, a lesbian mother in Delaware has asked the state supreme court to award her full custody of the triplets she helped raise from birth with her former partner. In papers filed on Thursday, the gay advocacy group Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights argued that Susan Symes should be given custody even though she is not the biological mother.

"For the past eight years, our client has assumed all of the obligations of a parent to these children, with the expressed consent and encouragement of the biological mother," said Alphonso David, staff attorney at Lambda Legal. "She is therefore a parent under Delaware law. Lower courts in Delaware have respected parent-child relationships of nonbiological parents for quite some time--it is well-established law--but this is the first time the question is before the high court."

The case involves a custody dispute between Susan Symes and Elizabeth Symes, who were in a committed relationship with each other for nine years. In 1996, the couple decided to each bear a child and raise the children together. Beth gave birth to triplets, who are the subject of this custody suit, and several years later Susan gave birth to one child. Shortly before the triplets turned 6 years old, Beth and Susan separated.

As part of their separation, Susan and Beth mutually entered into a custody agreement in October 2003 that gave custody of all four children to Susan, but three months later Beth refused to abide by the agreement. To protect her custody rights, Susan filed a petition for joint legal and physical custody of the triplets in January 2004, which Beth contested by filing her own motion seeking primary physical custody of the triplets, arguing that Susan was not a legal parent. In October 2004 the family court ruled that Susan is a de facto parent, which means that she has standing to seek custody of the triplets. In May 2005 the court awarded joint custody to Beth and Susan, with primary residency at Beth's home. Beth appealed the family court decision in October 2005, and the case is now before the supreme court of Delaware.

According to Lambda Legal, courts across the country have recognized the importance of protecting children's relationships with their nonbiological parents, including children of same-sex couples. In August 2005 the California supreme court handed down decisions in three cases acknowledging the rights and responsibilities of nonbiological parents born to same-sex couples. In September 2005 the superior court of Pennsylvania affirmed and upheld the decision that it was in the best interests of twins born to a same-sex couple to grant custody to the nonbiological mother of the children. Last month the Washington State supreme court ruled 7-2 that a nonbiological parent can seek to demonstrate legal parent status via the de facto parent doctrine. (

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