Waldlaw Blog

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why I Support California's SB 115

The current controversy over California's Senate Bill 115, an "act to amend section 7630 of the California Family Code relating to parent and child relationships," has forced me to revisit a sad chapter in the history of California parentage law.

Up until 2005, when a lesbian couple had a child together in California only the biological mother was considered a parent.  Many of us who practiced family law in the LGBT community prior to 2005 still are recovering from the PTSD inflicted by standing next to devoted non-biological lesbian mothers while they were told by courts that they lacked standing to pursue continued relationships with the children they had loved and parented from birth.

The most notorious of these cases was Nancy S. v. Michele G..  I recommend that anyone participating in the current debate over SB 115 -- which revolves around the question of whether a sperm donor who goes on to establish a bonded parental relationship with his donor offspring should have legal standing to pursue rights as a father -- read the Nancy S. decision and the story of what ultimately happened to those children.  I will provide a short version of that story here:

Nancy S. was an Alameda County case involving a lesbian couple who had been together for over 10 years when their first child, Kate, was born.  Nancy gave birth to Kate, and then four years later to Micah.  When Micah was only 6 months old, the couple broke up and Nancy moved out of the family home.  The two women shared custody for the next 3 years, with Kate living primarily with Michele and Micah living primarily with Nancy and the children visiting between the homes so that they were together several days per week.  And then, one day when Kate was 8 years old, Nancy pulled her out of school and told her that Michele was no longer her mom.  The same afternoon, Michele was served with a restraining order keeping her away from both children.

A brutal court battle ensued, and ultimately Nancy "won" and Michele was found not to have standing to pursue even visitation with the children she had raised with Nancy from birth.  However, the separation from Michele caused Kate to suffer from a clinical depression that ultimately alarmed Nancy to the extent that Nancy allowed Kate to go home to Michele.  Nancy subsequently moved with Micah to Oklahoma, to join a woman there with whom she had fallen in love.  In July, 1997 -- when Kate was 17 and Micah was 13 -- a tanker truck smashed into the car Nancy was driving, killing her on impact and causing Micah to be airlifted to a hospital.  When he regained consciousness, he was asked who his father was.  His response that he didn't have a father but did have another mother was met with resistance, and he was on his way to foster care when a sympathetic hospital employee intervened.  Ultimately, with support from Nancy's family, Michele was able to obtain an emergency guardianship and bring Micah home to California, to rejoin her and his sister.  For those of us who knew this family -- or knew the case -- we vowed that we would do whatever we could to assure that no child would ever again have to go through what Kate and Micah went through because of the courts' refusal to recognize a parent as a parent.

A few weeks ago, I had a consultation with a prospective client.  For purposes of this writing, I will call him Antonio.  (I am also changing enough details here to assure his confidentiality.)  Antonio is from Brazil, but has long resided in Contra Costa County.  He has a 10 year old daughter that he has raised with the child's mother from birth.  Antonio and the child's mother were in a committed relationship for years but never married, and were unable to conceive without medical assistance.  The child was conceived by intra-uterine insemination.  Thus, technically speaking, Antonio is a man who provided his sperm to a physician for purposes of inseminating a woman who was not Antonio's wife.  He is, by strict application of California's Family Code section 7613(b), a sperm donor.

Antonio has been co-parenting his daughter for the past 10 years.  He was present at her birth and at her christening, has been her primary financial support since birth, paying for her clothes and childcare and camps and school, and she has spent at least a couple of nights every week in his home since she stopped nursing.  Each summer, he has taken her to Brazil for an extended vacation so she would know his language and culture and have a meaningful relationship with his family there.  He is, in every sense, her dad.

Antonio and his daughter's mother are having an escalating disagreement about the best time share arrangement for this child.  They are arguing about where she should sleep on school nights, versus where she should sleep on the weekends.  They are arguing about how long her trip to Brazil should be this summer.  Antonio came to me asking me to help him understand what his options were for obtaining a custody order that would allow him and his daughter to have security and predictability in their time together.

I had to tell Antonio that -- given the current kerfuffle over SB 115 -- if he filed a custody action and his daughter's mother went to the wrong attorney, he could be faced with a motion to dismiss his custody action for lack of standing -- he could be faced with an argument that he has no right to any future contact with his daughter because he is "just a sperm donor."  For the first time in many years, I found myself reliving the trauma of Nancy S..

I honestly thought that we were past the time, in California, when children were at risk of losing a long time devoted parental figure based on rigid application of our statutes without consideration for the fall-out to the child.  As I read our statutes and our case law, and based on my own experience representing non-biological parents in California trial courts, California courts have been empowered for almost a decade to consider the children's perspective when they figure out which adult figures are legal parents and which are not.  But when you read the reactions of some commentators and practitioners to SB 115, you would think that the idea that courts should try to honor children's actual experiences of who their parents are was outrageous.  I am left scratching my head. 


  • Amazing story about Kate and Micah. Sadly, we have an incredibly oppressive environment here in Oklahoma. Kudos to you for taking the time to blog to spread awareness of stories like this that need to be told.

    By Blogger Kristin, at 1:33 PM  

  • The problem with your argument is that Antonio would have been put on the birth certificate regardless of the method of conception. What SB115 does is take away the rights of people like me, my wife, and my child who has a known donor. Now, the integrity of our family is questioned if the donor suddenly wants to claim parental rights even though we never had an agreement to co-parent and we relied on current law that made it clear that he had no parental rights or responsibilities.

    By Blogger ksf, at 10:59 PM  

  • Hi ksf --

    Antonio would NOT have been put on the birth certificate unless he signed a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity -- and under current California law, a "sperm donor" cannot sign such a Declaration of Paternity as a matter of law.

    Women in your situation -- i.e. married or RDP lesbian couples who have children together -- have multiple levels of protection. You are protected by the marital presumption, which says that if a baby is born into a marriage or RDP both spouses/partners are legally presumed to be the child's parents. You also are protected by our Supreme Court's decision in Elisa B., where the court found that a lesbian partner who participates in her child's conception with the intention of being a parent and then goes on to parent the child is a "natural" parent with the same rights as the mother who gave birth.

    Clearly, there are distinctions between fathers and sperm donors. Children understand these distinctions -- almost without exception, they know who their parents are. Listening to their voices, and trying to honor them, is what ultimately won us parenting equality for lesbian non-biological mothers. It should not be so scary to our community.

    Many, many women -- both single women and lesbian couples -- choose to have their donors participate in some way in their children's lives. Most of these men are not PARENTING the children -- they are visiting and being "special someones," like an uncle or a special adult friend. They don't participate in parental decision-making, they don't pay the bills, they don't stay up nights when the kid is sick. These men are sperm donors, and nothing in SB 115 would change that.

    All SB 115 would do is clarify what California law already has held for many years now -- that when someone DOES actually parent a child, he or she has standing to go to court to try to protect their established parent-child relationship. I maintain that children deserve no less.

    By Blogger Deborah Wald, at 2:22 PM  

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