Calif. lawmakers mull adjusting family structure

May allow more than 2 parents

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California lawmakers are considering an unusual bill that would legalize, in certain cases, more than two parents for a child.

The bill - SB 1476 - proposed by state Sen. Mark Leno, San Francisco Democrat, has passed the Senate but has not come up for a vote in the Assembly.

The bill would allow judges to recognize more than two individuals as parents when separation and custody battles arise in court.

Mr. Leno hopes to override a California appellate court ruling that limited parenthood to two individuals.

That case involved a lesbian couple and their child’s biological father. With one mother hospitalized and the other incarcerated, the biological father wished to gain custody to remove the child from California’s foster care system.

The appellate court in question overturned a previous family court ruling granting custody, claiming that California statute allowed courts to recognize only two individuals as parents and to expand that definition exceeded the court’s legal jurisdiction.

SB 1476 gives family court judges limited discretion when determining custody between more than two parents.

The statute urges judges “to consider the nature, duration, and quality of the presumed or claimed parents’ relationships … and the benefit or detriment to the child of continuing those relationships.”

The law does not change California’s specific legal definition of a parent. Parents are defined under the traditional biological and adoption methods along with other recognized legal contracts, including gay relationships. The problem arises when more than two individuals fit the legal definition of “parent” under California law.

“We live in a world today where courts are dealing with diverse circumstances that have reshaped California families,” Mr. Leno said in a statement. “This legislation gives courts the flexibility to protect the best interests of a child who is being supported financially and emotionally by those parents.”

Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute with the University of San Diego School of Law, said the bill “adds one narrow piece of discretion to determine what is in the best interest of a child.”

Mr. Howard said judges are being forced to rule against their sound judgment when they deny custody to a suitable parental figure simply because of an arbitrary number.

Fears about judges awarding custody to six, seven or eight individuals are “preposterous,” Mr. Howard said.

He cited California’s strict legal definition of parenthood which makes such outcomes impossible.

But Brad W. Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal association, was skeptical.

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