Friday June 25, 2010

Wisconsin Court Tells Lesbian: Legal Adoption, Not ‘Nurturing,’ Gives Parental Rights

By Peter J. Smith

MADISON, Wisconsin, June 25, 2010 ( – A Wisconsin appeals court has ruled against a woman seeking joint custody of her former lesbian partner’s adopted children, saying that only legal adoptive status, not years of caretaking, provide parental rights.

The District 4 Court of Appeals ruled against a woman identified in court documents as Wendy M., who was seeking legal guardianship of two children whom her partner, identified as Liz K., had adopted from Guatemala.

“Wisconsin law neither provides for joint adoption of a child by an unmarried couple, nor permits same-sex couples to marry. Thus, gay and lesbian couples in close, committed relationships cannot jointly adopt a child,” observed the court.

Wendy and Liz had lived together for seven years before adopting Olivia and Sofia. The court record states that the couple had decided that Liz would be the legal adoptive parent of the children, instead of Wendy, because she was a practicing attorney and could add Olivia and Sofia to her health insurance. Over the next five years, Wendy stayed at home with the

children, while Liz provided financially.

However, the women split and Liz retained legal custody of the children. While they have maintained an “informal” parenting relationship, Liz refused to give Wendy guardianship status after an incident involving Wendy as she was taking care of the children. The nature of the incident is not mentioned in the court record.

Wendy then sought the court to coerce Liz into giving her guardianship status, arguing that she was a parent under the “ordinary usage” of the term as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (2006), which includes “one who … nurtures and raises a child.”

The court, however, said that the “application of a dictionary definition of parent is inappropriate” and that statutory definitions, not dictionary entries, are the ones that matter in Wisconsin law.

“The term ‘parent’ is defined … as ‘either a biological parent … or a parent by adoption,’ a definition that plainly excludes Wendy,” the court stated.

They also cited state supreme court precedent set by Barstad v. Frazier, which ruled that having a relationship with a child was not sufficient criteria to bestow parental rights over the objections of a fit parent. Only if Liz were “drastically” harming the welfare of her children, they said, would the state have a right to interfere.

A different story is playing out in a Vermont case, in which a lesbian with no biological relation to her ex-partner’s child convinced a court to award her parental rights despite lacking legal adoptive status.

In the Vermont Supreme Court, lawyers in the custody fight are now disputing district court Judge Richard Cohen’s decision to strip ex-lesbian Lisa Miller of all parental rights to her 8-year-old daughter Isabella, whom she conceived by artificial insemination. Miller’s former partner Janet Jenkins sued and successfully received the right to unsupervised visits with Isabella. Miller decided to defy the courts and cut off contact between Jenkins and Isabella after Isabella complained that she wanted to kill herself following the visits, and had been forced to bathe naked with Jenkins.

After being ordered to hand custody of Isabella over to Jenkins, Miller disappeared last year with her daughter in tow. No one has reported having had contact with Miller since November 20 at the latest.

See related coverage by

Ex-Lesbian Lisa Miller “Disappears” as Date Passes for Court-Ordered Transfer of Daughter to Former Lover

Exclusive Interview with Lisa Miller, Ex-Lesbian Fighting for Custody of Own Child against “Civil Union” Partner