Waldlaw Blog

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.


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