The parent trap

The Baltimore Sun

The reality of 21st century life is that it's difficult to define a family with children. Most people understand this. The most practical is a "know it when you see it" definition: One adult - or two adults in a loving and committed relationship - raising one or more kids. Leave aside matters of genetics, gender or marital status.

But somehow this widespread social change has eluded the Maryland Court of Appeals, which this week has decided that there is no such thing as a de facto parent. The ruling not only overturns two lower court decisions in a difficult visitation rights case, but also sets an unfortunate legal precedent.

The court relegates an unmarried parent - in this Baltimore County case, a woman who helped raise a child adopted by her same-sex partner - to the same status as any third party, overturning her court-ordered visitation rights. Consequently, when the case returns to a lower court, she will have to prove that the adoptive parent was unfit or "exceptional circumstances" existed if she wants those rights restored.

The exceptional circumstances requirement may yet be achieved in this case. But this precedent will put an unfair burden on thousands of Marylanders who may be going through a similar process. And that includes cases involving not just same-sex couples but unmarried mixed-gender couples where one partner is not the adoptive or biological parent as well.

As Judge Irma S. Raker pointed out in her dissent, the better outcome would have been to treat de facto parents - those who have acted as parents but lack official designation - "as the equivalent of a legal parent with the same rights and obligations."

Other states have gone that route, including Wisconsin, Colorado and Massachusetts. The Maryland court's failure kicks the issue to the General Assembly, which has demonstrated an inability to tackle such controversial issues as capital punishment and same-sex marriage.

Ultimately, the best standard for deciding disputed custody cases is to first and foremost determine what's in the best interests of the child. The decision by Maryland's highest court to ignore the evolving notions of the modern family is not helpful in this regard.

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