Waldlaw Blog

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Delightful Way to Spend A Morning

Monday morning is adoption morning in San Francisco Superior Court. Families gather in the hallway outside Department 405 -- the courtroom of the presiding judge of the Unified Family Court -- grandmas in their church best, children in their party clothes, proud and excited adoptive parents posing for photographs and exchanging hugs and congratulations. A sense of celebration fills the air -- probably the only time all week that there are more smiles than frowns and tears in the family court, which usually handles divorces and custody disputes. This morning, I had a particulary moving adoption. My client's ex-partner was married when they met. By the time she left her husband for my client, she was pregnant. That was 26 years ago. My client was present at the baby's birth, cut his umbilical cord, and brought him and his birth mother home to her house where they raised him together for 16 years. But she was never able to adopt him, for two reasons: (1) he already had a legal mother and a legal father, neither of whom would consent to termination of their parental rights; and (2) 2nd parent adoptions hadn't been invented yet when he was young. Fast forward 26 years. My client has raised this child, now a young man, from birth. They are deeply bonded -- the love between them is obvious to anyone walking by. But they have never had a legal relationship. My client remains a "legal stranger" to this man she has raised, and would have no rights whatsoever if, god forbid, something should happen to him. She couldn't visit him in the ICU; would have no right to make decisions about his care or comfort; wouldn't be legally entitled to family leave or other benefits she might need to take care of him. Nor would he have these rights with regard to her. I have been asked on occasion why anyone bothers with adult adoptions. They seem so much less important, somehow, then adoptions of minor children who are still in need of so much from their parents. But this morning's adoption was one of the most meaningful adoptions I have had the privilege of being part of. To be able to give this mother and son the gift of being a legal family, after 26 years of waiting, was a moving and joyful experience -- when the Judge said "it is now ordered, adjudged and decreed that this adoption be granted" there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I have sometimes wondered why San Francisco Superior Court does its adoption hearings at 8:45 on Monday mornings, when we are all still shaking off our weekends and figuring out what our work weeks will hold, but all I can say this morning is ... what a nice way to start the week!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When 3 Reflects a Child's Reality

On July 16, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled: "When 3 Really Is a Crowd." In it the author Elizabeth Marquardt -- a vice president of the Institute for American Values -- opined that recent cases in Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada recognizing that children had three legal parents were dangerous to the American family. I wrote the following response, which I am publishing here since the New York Times seems not to be carrying it: Elizabeth Marquardt’s op-ed about children with 3 parents is based on two false assumptions. First, she assumes that any time a child has 3 parents, the child “will get shuffled between homes.” Second, she uses a study she did where she concluded that children of divorce suffer from having to share their lives between two homes as evidence that 3 homes would be worse, without comparing the trauma of children who lost one parent instead of growing up “traveling between two worlds.” By comparing apples to oranges, Ms. Marquardt is reaching simplistic conclusions about a complex issue. Children born to three parents, such as the children in the Ontario and Pennsylvania cases cited by Ms. Marquardt, were not put into 3-parent situations by the courts. Their reality from birth is that they are raised to bond with and rely on three adults, often without priority among them. If these adults end up in dispute, the choice posed to a family court is a complicated one: would it be more damaging for the child to lose one of these parental figures from their lives, or to have their time divided up three ways. Put another way, the question is: should a court have the discretion to try to craft a custody arrangement that honors all of the child’s parental attachments, if the court determines -- as a factual matter -- that this is what would be best for a given child? There is nothing in the rules that requires a court to “shuffle” a child between three homes; but shouldn’t that option be available to the court, if it finds that that is the best way to protect the emotional health of a particular child? Family courts are presented with complex and heartbreaking decisions on a daily basis. These decisions are supposed to be made “in the best interests of the children.” But when some of the adults that a child has relied upon for the child’s lifetime are not recognized by the legal system, the courts’ hands are tied and they are disabled from truly assessing what is best for a particular child. No one is suggesting that the courts should go out looking for third parents for children. But when faced with a child that already has three parents, with whom that child is fully bonded and upon whom that child relies, the courts need to have the discretion to recognize all three parents so they can craft an arrangement that meets a particular child’s needs without being constrained by legal limitations that do not acknowledge the existence of non-traditional family models.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Watching Our Kids Grow Up

Many of you who tried to call me last week got a message that I was out of the office, and I've been greeted all week by "I hope you had a good vacation!" Well, it's time to fess up about what I was actually doing last week while I wasn't in the Wald Law office.... My sons are now 11 and 13. They have shared a bedroom for their entire lives. Over the past several months, it became clear -- first to my partner and, eventually, to me and the boys -- that they both needed more space and privacy. So, last week while neither boy was in camp, we rearranged our house to turn what had been our family den into a bedroom for our older son. This meant moving two couches, bookcases, bureaus and a bed. It meant cleaning out drawers and shelves and cabinets. It meant getting rid of all of the outgrown projects and hobbies and toys and books. When all was said and done, it meant acknowledging that our sons really are growing up. I admit that I had underestimated the amount of sheer physical labor involved in moving our kids into separate rooms. I didn't reckon on the sore muscles and exhaustion that resulted from moving couches and bookcases from upstairs to down, moving bed and bureau from one room to the next. I didn't realize how much dust I was going to injest along the way. But as much as I had underestimated the physical job, it doesn't come close to the extent to which I had failed to understand the emotional component of this move. It seems like just a few years ago that I had two babies -- one in a crib, and one in a toddler bed -- sleeping next to each other under their mobiles. Like only months ago that I would sit on a chair in the middle of my children's bedroom, arms outstretched to either side to hold two small hands and sing quiet songs while my boys fell asleep in their twin beds. Like just yesterday that one son, waking up from a bad dream, would climb into bed with his brother to find easy comfort there. Now, my sons are both in middle school. They are listening to their music on their ipods, each with his own headphones on, each in his own private world. They are sending and receiving e-mail that they don't want the rest of us to see. They are ... well, they are growing up. And so, they need separate rooms. Separate spaces to grow into and, eventually, to grow out of. I guess that's why this move feels so big. I finish sorting and rearranging and dusting with the knowledge that the next time we go through a major move like this with our sons, it will be to move one of them -- and then, two years later, the other -- out of our home and into a dorm room or apartment. It is what we've raised them for. It is what we want for them. It is a huge change that moves closer with each inch they grow and each MUNI train they ride on their own and each new song they listen to by a band I've never heard of. So, what I was actually doing last week while I was out of my office was acknowledging the young men that my children are turning into. And moving furniture. And it's pretty clear, in retrospect, which was the bigger job....