Three Parent Adoption: A Child Centered Approach on the Rise

When I was growing up in the 60s, divorce was rarely spoken of and, if it occurred, there was a fair amount of shame associated with the disclosure. If parents divorced and remarried, there were complex family dynamics that ensued for parents, step-parents and step-children. Everyone had labels, roles, and aching hearts. We walked on eggshells a lot of the time. I suspect many of us have funny and not-so-funny experiences we can now recount, of our own families or those of friends involving blended families. There were the parent-teacher conferences, bat mitzvahs, weddings, and graduations when the spouses, exes, formers and current, all showed up. Cartoonist Jules Pfieffer and playwright Neil Simon could have had a field day.

In the old days, divorces were more often handled in less than child-centered ways. Parents tugged on children’s hearts and limbs, their time and their loyalties, making the unspoken “ownership” theme a core focus of the relationship. When, following divorce, one or another parent re-married, it was (and still is) common for the wife to take the surname of the new husband. Thus, in a blended family consisting of the newly re-married couple, children of the husband and then children of the wife – the latter are likely to feel some tinge (or more) of non-membership in the new family. It may be important here, to acknowledge that I’m speaking of patterns in the US; cross-cultural patterns often vary, with larger meanings associated with the roles of family members.

No one hyphenated names back then. And no one would have thought to give the wife’s children a legal relationship with the man who was there for them as a dad day-in and day-out. It would have been incomprehensible that a child’s biological father and step-father would have agreed to share the title of father, much less accord each other equal legal standing.

With this social history as a backdrop, it is mind-opening to learn that some courts are allowing three parent adoptions. In a case in Massachusetts, two lesbian moms and a known donor father were, all three, actively involved in the children’s lives. In their family’s situation, it seemed fitting to ask the court to recognize all of them as legal parents – a win-win all around. The child would benefit from the security of the legal relationships and the parents would have a socially recognized basis to feel secure in the relationship as well. The judge approved the petition for a three parent adoption.

It is interesting to contemplate an approach that is focused on the child’s needs rather than an “ownership” model of parenthood. One wonders: What if children were not divided like a piece of pie, but, instead, were supported with all the love and care from multiple primary adults in their lives? And what if those relationships were fully acknowledged by society through our legal structures?

Three parent adoptions have occurred in Massachusetts, Oregon and Alaska, but there may be other jurisdictions as well. Adoptions are sealed records, so it is not easy to learn whether, in select cases and jurisdictions, lower courts or probate court judges have allowed three parent adoptions. These decisions are often not reported or published, and adoptions, in general, are sealed. It is usually only when there is an issue that is appealed that a case rises to the level of being published or “reported.” In some instances, attorneys issue a press release noting that they’ve broken new legal ground in their jurisdiction. (e.g. Oregon, June 15, 2011, Beth A. Allen Law P.C., http://bethallenlaw.com/press-releases/). Attorney Allen has assisted in a number of three parent adoptions and indicates that other attorneys in Oregon are doing the same; these include families with same sex parents and father/donors and also ‘poly’ families where there are more than two adults in a committed, loving, family relationship. In other instances, attorneys have shared the non-identifying information of having assisted families with three parent adoptions as part of public legal education (e.g., Joyce Kauffman Esq. answering questions for http://ask.familyequality.org).

Legislators in some states are proposing statutes that will make express that three parent adoptions are legally recognized. For example, a proposed bill in California would legalize third and fourth parent adoptions. “Measure Opens Door to Three Parents, or Four” by Ian Lovett, July 13, 2012, NY Times. An article describing the proposed legislation is found at: (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/us/a-california-bill-would-legalize-third-and-fourth-parent-adoptions.html?pagewanted=all). Governor Brown vetoed the bill in September 2012, but indicated that he would like to have more time to consider the measure, which has been characterized as, “an implicit invitation for Senator Leno to send the bill back to his desk next year.” http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/california-politics/2012/09/brown-rejects-bill-that-would-have-allowed-a-child-to-have-more-than-two-legal-parents.html.

The primary impetus for three -parent adoptions is application of the legal standard, “the best interests of the child.” There simply are situations where there are more than two adults who are truly being parents to a child in a long-term, consistent fashion. There is a popular statement, most often acknowledged as a proverb in Africa, sometimes also attributed to Native American culture, and popularized in the U.S. by both Ted Kennedy and Hilary Clinton, states, “Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child.” In fact, sometimes it is the concerted effort of more than two fully recognized parents that are foundational to a child’s care and growth. If an adult has consistently behaved like a parent, and, if it’s in the best interests of the child that the relationship has legal protections, it may be appropriate for a court to recognize the legal relationship. A cross-cultural study of multiple parent families might yield some insights into the factors that help this family form work well long-term.

The advent of the three parent adoption is not confined to the United States. Canada, in the 2007 case of A.A. v B.B. (2007), 83 O.R. (3d) 561, decided by the Ontario Court of Appeal, exercising judicial authority under the parens patriae doctrine, found that the child, referred to by initials “D.D.”, should be deemed to have three legal parents. “The Court’s reasoning in A.A. v B.B represents a shift in judicial attitudes regarding the determination of legal parenthood in non-traditional cases,” writes Alison Bird in “Legal Parenthood and the Recognition of Alternative Family Forms in Canada,” 264 UNB LJ 264 (2010).

One can spend considerable time considering variations on the theme of three (and four) parent adoptions, trying to imagine both the questions and answers that would evolve from a variety of “what ifs…” The option for a three or four parent adoption, at its best, affords a child-centered approach that focuses on all the good that a child can receive from sound, well-coordinated, grounded and loving parents. As with any new opportunity, there will always be a case for which reasonable people will later conclude that, for ”that” family, the three or four parent idea was not a good fit. In this moment, the scenarios for which it might be helpful to a child predominate. One can not help but also think backwards in time and wonder how many blended families might have had greater harmony if they had enlarged the circle of those who could be recognized as loving parents rather than having a closed-loop/ownership mentality which meant that for one parent to be recognized, another had to vanish.

It can be anticipated that this broadening of what is legally recognized as family and how we think about the role of parents will expand and, in the proper cases, will include step-parents as well. One can imagine that this may also be a topic for conversation in some infant adoptions. Contemplating three (and four) parent adoptions may increasingly be a part of building a firm family foundation under children’s healthful growth and development in the years ahead.

Marla Allisan, JD,LICSW

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