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New York makes bold statement in same-sex parental rights

On August 30, New York's Court of Appeals ruled that people in same-sex divorce cases who are not biological or adoptive parents have the right to seek visitation and custody of their children. This marked a departure from earlier rulings that people seeking custody must have either adopted their children or have biological connections. This is an important decision for gay parents who have found, since the Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize their unions, that there are few clear rules around child custody when those marriages end.

The murky waters of gay marriage and child custody

An unfortunate aside to gay marriage is gay divorce, and with different rules in different states, the waters become even cloudier when it comes to gay couples who have children. In many cases, children are related biologically to only one parent, and many states do not allow non-biological parents to sign birth certificates. Some choose to adopt to establish their rights, but others don't see the need to do so, assuming their relationships will last. For parents who do not follow through with adoption or other legal means of establishing parentage, questions are left unanswered regarding child custody, visitation and support.

Chris Strickland of Mississippi is one such parent. She and her partner Kimberly Day were not allowed to marry or adopt children together, so Day alone adopted their first child. The couple married in Massachusetts in 2009, then returned to Mississippi where Day underwent in vitro fertilization and gave birth to another child. Because Mississippi still didn't recognize their marriage, only Day was allowed to sign the birth certificate. Now that the couple is divorcing, Strickland is left fighting in court for recognition as a parent of the children she spent more than a decade raising.

Same-sex parents fighting in other states

Erica Witt of Knoxville, Tennessee, did not realize that she had to adopt the child that her partner conceived via in vitro fertilization for the state to recognize her as a parent. The couple married in Washington D.C. in 2014 and became parents back in Tennessee in 2015. Now that the couple is divorcing, Witt has discovered that Tennessee, like other states, does not grant her the rights of a biological parent. This case is going through the appeals process, as Witt fights for recognition as the legal parent of child she and her partner decided together to conceive.

The impact of New York's decision

While New York is not the first state to broaden its definition of parenthood, it is one of the largest states to do so. The decision could now provide a basis for other states to make similar changes in redefining parental rights for same-sex parents. New York cited the guiding principle of the best interests of the child to make the decision - this is the standard in every state in the country.

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