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California could be the first state in the US to recognize families with more than two parents

Even though marriage arrangements have been all over the map in the last couple thousand years, parents are parents, right? One seed, one egg, one or more babies. But these days, with fostering and adoption and fertility treatment, there are situations where a child could have more than two people that could legally qualify as capable parents, and a proposed California law could recognize those unique arrangements.

The bill does not change California’s legal requirements to be deemed a parent, but it does give judges the freedom to decide when it’s appropriate to recognize more than two parents.

“We would want a family court to be able to use its best judgment,” Sen. Leno told Current. “And denying the court the opportunity to use its best judgment when it is specifically required to protect the best interest of a child makes no sense.”

The case that prompted the legislation hinged on the ways that California legally defines parenthood. The case centered around a married lesbian couple and a known father who had conceived a child during an affair with the biological mother. The trial court ruled all three individuals were parents after one of the mothers was in jail and the other hospitalized, and the biological father pursued custody. After the appellate court overturned the decision, the child ended up in foster care.

“How does that help anybody? It hurts kids to deny them relationships with their parents,” Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, said of the current limitation of two parents.

Howard clarified that the law would only be used in rare cases and in some instances could prevent children from winding up in the foster care system.

Opponents of the bill have objected to it, saying it would result in children being bounced around between multiple adults. In The Sacramento Bee, Benjamin Lopez of the Traditional Values Coalition said that it would “revamp” family structure. Efforts to reach the Traditional Values Coalition directly for a comment were unsuccessful.

Howard rejects the idea that children would be bounced between increasing numbers of adults. He points out that the bill does not change the state’s legal requirements for someone to be deemed a parent, and, practically speaking, it wouldn’t be possible for a significant number of adults to take on that role.

“There aren’t that many hours in the day to do that,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, also notes that the bill is not changing families, but for extending legal recognition to those that already exist. He points specifically to LGBTQ families where a core family may involve three or four adults. Two women choosing to raise a child with a known donor, for example, or a lesbian and gay male couple deciding to conceive and raise a family together.

“What the bill actually means is the kids would get to have more than two adults to get to support and nurture them,” said Renata Moreira, acting policy director of the Our Family Coalition, which advocates for LGBTQ families. “[This] is, in essence, what a lot of our families are already doing, without legal recognition.”

“These are intended families, carefully planned families, and these are families that have a very good track record,” Minter told Current. “This has been going on for quite some time, and there are a lot of very stable, committed families — three- or four-parent families — who don’t have any way to get legal recognition for all of the parents.”

In addition to providing options if two of the parents were unable to care for a child, the ability to recognize more than two adults as parents could also benefit children in terms of stability and access to resources like health insurance. It could also make things easier for these families in situations where a legal parent is needed, such as when medical decisions need to be made in an emergency or while traveling overseas.


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