Category: Family Law

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Intensive Parenting Enforced: Parents Criminal Liability for Children Skipping School

I have written here about the trend of intensive parenting. Parents today are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before, constantly cultivating and monitoring their children’s progress. In our article, Over-Parenting, Zvi Triger and I caution against legal enforcement of intensive parenting norms. One area in which states have been most active recently in enforcing intensive parenting norms is parental involvement in schools.

Earlier this month California’s Senate adopted a bill that authorizes prosecutors to charge a parent with a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine, if her child skips school on a regular basis. This law enforces intensive parenting. Parents engaging in intensive parenting are extremely involved in their children’s school activities. Volunteering in school activities, whether as a class trip chaperon or in school events has become the norm among both working and non-working parents.  Schools provide parents with access to the school website to monitor children’s grades, class attendance and even lunch menus. Parents regularly attend family mornings at their children’s schools and are required to participate in children’s homework preparation through questions targeted specifically at them. Given this background, the California Bill, as extreme as it may sound to some, is not surprising. This Bill merely seeks to enforce what has already become a dominant social norm of intensive parental involvement in children’s school lives.

Some may think that the California Bill is not such a bad idea.  After all don’t we want to ensure that children attend school regularly and eventually graduate from high-school. However, what may be a desirable social norm is not necessarily a good legal standard. A stay-at-home mom dealing with a difficult teenager and successfully assuring that her daughter attends school on a regular basis is no doubt helping her daughter. But do we want to hold the mother who fails to do so criminally liable?  Parents are differently situated in their ability to control their children. Intensive parenting is a middle class parenting norm. Lower income class parents juggling several jobs may not have the flexibility to personally supervise  their children to ensure they don’t skip school. In addition, this Bill, like intensive parenting norms, is in practice, gender biased. Intensive parenting heavily burdens mothers.  Should states adopt and enforce laws holding parents criminally liable for their children’s school attendance, it will most likely be the mother, who is usually seen responsible for children’s daily activities, who will end up being held criminally liable.

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Bizarro Section 1982 and “civil union” — a thought experiment in unequal names

Suppose that, immediately after the Civil War, instead of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1862, the Congress had enacted a statute that provided: “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property, except that as to non-whites some other name shall be used instead of ‘property'; and for the interests of non-whites parallel to property, names other than ‘purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey’ shall be used.”

This bizarro version of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1982 would cause non-whites constitutional injuries of several types, and would fail to effectuate an underlying constitutional purpose of equality.  We might enumerate, at a minimum, the following types of injuries. (1) There would be widespread confusion, for some time, as to what the new and supposedly equal rights of non-whites were, because those rights are to be called by different names.  The confusion would be increased if different states chose different new for the new institution parallel to property.  (2) In order to carry out the statute’s command to use different names, everyone involved in an interaction, transaction, or event concerning property or ownership would be required to sort the participants into whites and non-whites just to talk legal talk accurately.   The bizarro statute endorses and in many circumstances requires the continued practice of legally distinguishing whites and non-whites.   (3) Non-whites would have to expend considerable effort teaching and explaining the new “non-property” terminology in order to claim the equal rights supposedly granted by the statute. (4) In order to comply with the law’s nomenclature distinctions, legally non-white individuals who might pass for white would be forced to identify themselves as non-white wherever their “property” rights were involved.  (5) Confusion over the new, unfamiliar terminology would result in the denial of the tangible equal rights the legislature intended to grant, both because of genuine confusion, and because a feigned confusion could be used by persons seeking to avoid the statute’s command of equality as to the institution of property.

An unlikely scenario?  This argument is adapted from the draft of an amicus brief on behalf of the New Jersey State Bar Association, to be filed in the Lewis v. Harris II litigation pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court.  I described that litigation in a post here yesterday, and (I must disclose) I helped write this part of this amicus brief.  The litigation is about a different institution, though — not property, but “marriage” and its bizarro double, “civil union”.

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Wrongful Adoption or Adopting Blindly?

I have been following the news stories about the Tennessee mother that put her adopted child on a plane (alone) back to Russia because she could no longer cope with his significant health and behavioral problems.  Although saddened by this case, I see a silver lining.  Maybe, Americans will finally see that international adoptions are not necessarily any less risky than domestic adoptions.  In an article published several years ago, I examined the reasons why many Americans prefer to adopt internationally as opposed to domestically.  I am not opposed to international adoptions and in fact, believe that the law should encourage more families to adopt, both domestically and internationally, so long as the adoption is in the particular child’s best interest.  However, I was puzzled that many families chose to adopt internationally despite the high financial costs ($20,000-$35,000), extensive delays, and bureaucracies in both the U.S. and the sending country.  One common response was that domestic adoptions were too risky—specifically, that foreign-born children had fewer health risks than the children available for adoption in the U.S., international adoptions were less likely than domestic adoptions to be disrupted, prospective parents would have a child in their home sooner, and the process was less expensive.   In the article, I summarized the literature debunking these myths.   Here, however, I would like to focus on only one—the belief that foreign-born children have fewer health risks than those available for adoption in the U.S.

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Lewis v. Harris II — “civil union” versus “marriage”, one more time

Last month, on behalf of several same-sex couples, Lambda Legal filed a “Petition in Aid of Litigants’ Rights”  with the New Jersey Supreme Court, asking for further relief in Lewis v. Harris, 908 A.2d 196 (N.J. 2006).    The petition argues that the state’s Civil Union Law, created in 2006,  has utterly failed to create the constitutionally required equality for same-sex couples.  It requests the court to revisit the matter forthwith and order the state to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.

In 2006 in Lewis v.  Harris, the court held 7 – 0  that New Jersey’s constitution as a matter of equal protection (although not as a fundamental right) required the state to provide all the rights and benefits of marriage to committed same-sex couples, and also some kind of full legal recognition — the already-existing “domestic partnership” regime, with its limited benefits and different structure, was constitutionally insufficient.  But the court split 4 – 3 on whether to require the legislature to include same-sex couples within the legal definition of marriage, or to permit the legislature in its discretion instead to create a new legal institution for same-sex couples.  The legislature (very quickly) chose the latter course, enacting New Jersey’s Civil Union Law.

Three years later, the March 2010 pleading challenges that law as constitutionally inadequate.  It argues that the separate institution of civil union does not convey to same-sex couples and their families the important though intangible status of marriage, and that the separate-but-equal approach stigmatizes them in an ongoing way; that same-sex couples and their families must expend considerable effort and suffer considerable embarrassment claiming the equal rights that “civil union” is supposed to provide; and that in daily encounters, failures of others to recognize “civil union”, whether inadvertent or deliberate and feigned, regularly result in not being accorded rights and benefits equivalent to those of different-sex married couples, the goal that civil union is required to achieve.

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Over-Parenting

Benches in playground are deserted these days. Instead, parents are swinging their children while chanting the ABC. Raising my small children, I have observed that parenting has changed dramatically since I was a child – today’s parents are much more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.  In our paper titled: “Over-Parenting,” my co-author Zvi Triger and I describe this new trend of parenting, which we call “Intensive Parenting.” We show that the law already enforces Intensive Praneting and argue that despite  the advantages of Intensive Parenting, its norms should not be hastily incorporated into the law.

The intensive parent is on a constant quest to obtain updated knowledge of best child rearing practices and use this information actively to cultivate her child and monitor all aspects of the child’s life.  Intensive parenting begins as the pregnant mother accesses an ever increasing amount of information instructing her on how to achieve an optimal pregnancy and does not end when the child enters college. Colleges and more recently even law schools have adjusted to accommodate a new generation of parents who insist on being in direct contact with administrators and professors in order to continue to monitor their children’s life.

But, Intensive Parenting is not just about social norms. We show that it is actually a socio-technological trend. Parents use new information technologies to enhance their ability to monitor and be informed. For example, parents use the cellular phone to stay in constant touch with their children. Commentators observing Intensive parents using the cell phone to communicate with college aged children about the smallest anecdotes of life, have called it “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”

And what does the law have to do with it? We find that the law is already enforcing Intensive Parenting norms, and is particularly powerful in molding parental rearing norms during custody disputes. For example, courts determining custody allocations consider as a factor the parents’ pre-divorce care taking roles and division of labor. The parent who was more involved in the child’s life before divorce has an advantage in custody resolutions. In practice, attorneys are advising their clients on the eve of divorce to engage in Intensive Parenting. The time period before custody determinations becomes a race for involvement, particularly for the parent who was not originally the primary caretaker. Unfortunately, parents eager to gain custody and operating in a world governed by Intensive Parenting norms often become overly dominating in their interaction with children. For instance, by taking over sport practices leaving their child with no independent outlet or by overwhelming their child with constant messages and phone calls.

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5

Is Your Love Worth $9 Million?

About a year ago, I blogged about the dying tort of alienation of affections.   I say “dying” because all but seven states have abolished the cause of action.  However, in at least one of those states, approximately 200 cuckolded spouses each year sue their spouse’s paramour.  Just last week, a North Carolina jury awarded a spurned wife $9 million ($5 million in compensatory and $4 million in punitive damages) against the woman  she claims wrecked her marriage of 33 years.   Although the defendant paramour does not have $9 million, the wife does not regret suing her husband’s lover.  She admits that the point of the lawsuit, at least in part, was to send a message.   This brings me back to the concerns I raised over a year ago.  These suits are not about compensation for one’s injuries or deterring adultery, but rather seek to humiliate the paramour and assert one’s own moral superiority.   In fact, these suits can be harmful to the plaintiff herself.  In this case, the wife owes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills and she will probably never receive much (if any) of the $9 million awarded to her.  But, as she conceded, this case is about something much greater than money; she wanted people about to enter into a relationship with a married person “to understand, before they do it, how much it hurts.”

The defendant paramour plans to appeal.  This might be an opportunity for North Carolina to follow the majority of states that have abolished the cause of action for alienation of affections on the ground that a spouse’s affections cannot be stolen and that one person is never the sole cause of marital breakdown.  However, the court might do the opposite and use this opportunity to remind us that “[w]hen a third person is at fault for the breakdown of a marriage, the law ought to provide a remedy.” Norton v. Macfarlane (Utah 1991).  Stay tuned.

4

Bright Ideas: Cahn & Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families

My colleague, Professor Naomi Cahn (GW Law School) and Professor June Carbone (U. Missouri at Kansas City) have recently published a very provocative and interesting new book, Red Familes v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press,2010).  Their book examines the fact that “red” states, despite more restrictive family law, have higher teen pregnancy rates and higher divorce rates than “blue” states.

SOLOVE: What inspired you to write the book?

CARBONE & CAHN: We saw the commentary on the 2004 election about moral values and when we saw the statistics on higher divorce rates in the red states, we reacted, “But we know why that happens, red families marry at younger ages and age is a risk factor for divorce.” When we inquired further, we found the differences were much greater than that and worth much more exploration.

SOLOVE: What are the most central ideas of the book are?

CARBONE & CAHN:  There really are two family systems , and one is in crisis while the other is doing reasonably well. The “blue” one invests in women as well as men, delays family formation until after young adults reach emotional maturity and financial independence, and views sexuality as a private matter. The “red” system is a traditional one that continues to preach abstinence, early marriage, and more traditional gender roles. The blue system arose in response to the needs of the post-industrial economy while the religious backlash against the new values has locked red families into a war against modernity.

The two systems map onto increasingly ideological divisions in American politics, and make family a point of intense contestation.

The conflict between the two systems produces counterproductive results, such as abstinence education that has the most disproportionate consequences for poor women.

The solution is to reforge values at the state and local level while keeping the pathways (e.g., access to contraception) open through national efforts.

SOLOVE: What was your most surprising finding?

CARBONE & CAHN: We were surprised to find that the relationship between age and divorce is new. While teen marriages have always been risky, those who married at 22 in 1980 had about the same levels of divorce as those who married at 28; today, every increase in age reduces the incidence of divorce. This is surprising to us because it suggests that what is going on is not biological, that is, that the improved stability of later marriage is probably a function of better assortative mating (i.e., the successful marry later and marry similarly successful mates) rather than greater maturity at later ages. It also suggests that what’s wrong with marriage in the early twenties is the absence of the right societal support rather than anything about the immaturity per se of those in their early twenties.

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Billionaire Girard’s Imperfect Legacy

GC Founder's HallIn his early-19th century will, Stephen Girard, one of the richest persons in United States history, endowed a school, Girard College, for the education of white boys who were poor and orphaned. As of the early 21st century, the Philadelphia school (whose Founder’s Hall is pictured at right and from which I was graduated in 1980), educates students of all races and both genders from families with limited financial resources headed by a single parent or guardian. Thus have the scope of race and gender radically opened and the concepts of poor and orphaned subtly shifted.

Girard’s will, which elaborately detailed all aspects of the school and dedicated his entire fortune to creating it, also prohibits clergy of any sect ever from stepping foot on campus. Despite early constitutional challenges, this provision remains unchanged and generally enforced. Though there is considerable scholarship on Girard College, in law as well as sociology and other fields, relatively little intellectual energy has been devoted to discerning how and why transformations occurred as to race, gender, poverty and family, yet not as to religion.* Read More

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Regulating Surrogacy–But Only In Certain Cases

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an article on the legal regulation of gestational surrogacy, or rather, the lack thereof.   A gestational surrogate carries an embryo created from either (1) the intended parents’ eggs and sperm, (2) donated eggs or sperm, (3) or donated eggs and sperm.  Although some people object to all types of surrogacy, it is this third type that is most controversial because the intended parents—the persons who contracted with the gestational surrogate—have no genetic link to the child they contracted to create.  

Gestational surrogacy raises many questions—for example, what happens when the gestational surrogate refuses to relinquish the child at birth—but I want to focus on one issue I find particularly disturbing.  In an effort to provide uniformity and predictability, the American Bar Association has drafted a model act for states to adopt.  The act would require individuals seeking to create a child using a gestational surrogate to obtain court preapproval and undergo a home study similar to that required of adoptive parents.  At first glance, preapproval seems like a good idea as it would ensure that the parties know their rights and that the intended parents are fit to raise a child.  My problem with the proposed act is that the home study and preapproval process is only required where neither of the intended parents has a genetic tie to the child. 

On one level, the ABA’s proposal makes sense.  Some the concerns raised by gestational surrogacy—the commercialization of procreation and commodification of children—might not be present when at least one of the intended parents is also a biological parent.  Arguably, it might be more difficult to justify regulation of surrogacy agreements when parents are raising their own biological children and relying on technology to merely facilitate the creation of those children, as opposed to creating and raising children unrelated to them. 

I am troubled, however, by the message the law would send if it required court preapproval of gestational agreements involving intended parents who are unable or unwilling to provide their own gametes while imposing no such burden on those who provide their own gametes.  It may signal that parents who lack genetic ties to their children are somehow not “real parents” in the same way as those with biological ties.  I wonder whether this message would further fuel the desire of individuals currently using all kinds of technology to create their own biological children, sometimes at great physical, emotional, and financial cost to them and their families.  I also wonder whether such a law would signal to adoptive parents and children that their families are somehow different (and less desirable) than those who share biological ties.

2

No Right to Retire?

Courts regularly grapple with the competing principles of autonomy and obligation in the context of family law.   How to reconcile these principles – when gender, money, relative status, jealousy, spite, avarice are involved – is a fascinating challenge for judges.  These issues are also fun to teach since they are often uncomfortably close to most people’s own experiences. 

On Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered a variant of the autonomy/obligation condundrum in Pierce v. Pierce  – in which the Court was basically asked to decide whether a higher earning spouse has a “right to retire” and be exempted from otherwise on-going alimony obligations.

Rudolph Pierce was a well-compensated attorney.  In the divorce agreement from Carniece, his wife of 32 years, he agreed to pay $110,000 year in alimony until either party died or she remarried.  When he decided to retire from his partnership at age 65, he argued that he should be relieved of any obligation to pay alimony and asked the court to adopt a rebuttable presumption that all alimony should be terminated when (1) the supporting spouse retires from employment at a customary retirement age and has no actual earned income, (2) the parties’ marital assets, including their retirement assets, had been equally divided at the divorce, and (3) the parties have the same amount of liquid assets at the time of the provider spouse’s retirement.  

 The trial court agreed to a significant modifcation of Rudolph’s obligation – to $42 k – but held that in light of Carniece’s recent loss of her job, the fact that she was not yet t entitled to Social Security, and that Rudolph continued to have significant earning capacity (in addition to his assets and his current wife’s salary), he wasn’t off the hook altogether.   The Supreme Court rejected Rudolph’s rebutabble presumption and affirmed the multi-factoral test generally applicable to modification requests.

My first thought (which the Court echoed) is why (at age 57), Rudolph agreed to such a high alimony award without a change upon his retirement.   A cynic would suggest that this might have been  intentional so that his wife would agree to a fairly equal division of property despite the parties’ differential earning capacity (his wife had been the primary caretaker of the children and home though she worked outside of the home as well).

Cynicism aside – this is a difficult issue.  Rudolph’s arguement that declining to accept the presumption would grant the recipient spouse “effective veto power over the provider spouse’s retirement decision” was wildly exaggerated.   But the Court did impose limitations on when a “supporting spouse” will be able to retire – and for some, the idea of having to continue to work to support a former spouse will seem deeply problematic.