A bill in the California Legislature would allow one child to have more than two parents.
The bill, SB 1476, has already passed in the Senate, and its author, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, expects it to go before the Assembly by the end of the month.
The bill is intended to help kids out when one or both of their “custodial” parents can’t take care of them, Leno said.
A couple of examples provided by Leno:
• A child lives in the custody of a mother and stepfather. Both these parents become incapacitated – by illness or perhaps arrest. Rather than placing the child in foster care, the bill would allow a court to recognize the biological father as a third parent.
• The child has a lesbian couple as custodial parents, but the father who donated the sperm remains interested in the child’s welfare. If something happens to one or both of the lesbian partners, the court could allow the biological father a legal paternal role.
Advocates point out that the bill would indeed include both rights and responsibilities for third parents – potentially three or more parents could be legally obligated to pay child support, for example.
But Bill May, president of the San Francisco-based Catholics for the Common Good, told me he still sees the bill as a threat to traditional families because it doesn’t tell courts to give priority to uniting kids with their biological parents. “We all have a desire for connection with the man and woman we came from,” he said. “But the law is really saying that has no significance.”
May also thinks having three or more parents agree on parenting decisions – such as where a child should live, and what after-school activities are appropriate – could be a muddle.
Diane Wasnicky is president of the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists and legislative chair of the Association of Family Conciliation Courts, both of which have opposed the bill, arguing that its language conflicts with current laws and precedents. Wasnicky likes the bill’s goal, but thinks it’s poorly drafted.
For example, she says, the state child-support system has a precise “algebraic formula” for apportioning child support based on two parents. Asking judges to figure out how these guidelines would apply to three or more parents would create a huge headache and could conflict with federal law.
Leno responds that other states who have adopted similar legislation — Pennsylvania, Maine, and Delaware, plus the District of Columbia — haven’t encountered any of these problems. He thinks judges would have the wisdom to figure out when adding a third parent would cause more harm than good.
Adoption law expert Joan Heifetz Hollinger, of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, sides with Leno. “The bill once enacted would be very beneficial for a small but important number of children and their families,” she told me.
Regardless of what Leno and his cosponsors intended, I wondered if the bill might be used to foster alternative lifestyles and 70s-style group marriages. (I myself lived with two mothers and two fathers for a few of my teenage years; you can read all about it in this Salon piece.) But Leno told me that’s not at all what he had in mind. “This is not about forming alternative families,” he said. “This is not about polygamy.”
“People involved in a ménage a trois are going to behave that way regardless of this law,” said Hollinger. “And such arrangements are few and far between.”
Rather she imagined the law being used to support couples, both gay and straight, who collaborate with surrogate mothers, or donors of sperm or embryos, to raise a child.
“Our world doesn’t fit into a single model,” she said. “And children are being raised in all kinds of circumstances.”