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Tagged: Family Law

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What’s in a Name?

Friday’s New Jersey Superior Court decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow holding that equal protection requires the extension of marriage to same-sex couples was an important victory for marriage equality overall and for recognition of the importance of naming. The decision arises at a time when debate continues over whether the New Jersey legislature will override the gubernatorial veto of the last year’s Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, which would have extended the title of marriage to same-sex couples in New Jersey.

 

Seven years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded in Lewis v. Harris that the equal protection challenge to the state’s refusal to marry same-sex couples could be separated into two distinct issues – (1) whether same-sex couples had an equal right to the rights of marriage; and (2) whether they had a right to the title “marriage.”  As to the first question, the court easily concluded that same-sex couples were entitled under equal protection principles to the benefits and privileges of marriage.  But as to the second question, the court was careful to maintain a distinction between substantive rights and naming.  In deferring to the legislature, the majority chose not to “presume that a difference in name alone is of constitutional magnitude.”

 

The question of access to the title of “marriage” has often focused on the social costs associated with being labeled something other than married.  In her stirring dissent from the court’s deferral of the naming question in Lewis v. Harris, then-Chief Justice Poritz identified the stigma and devaluation flowing from giving same-sex couples a title other than marriage.  I have written more extensively about this issue elsewhere.

 

The decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow highlights the substantive costs (apart from the social ones) of failing to use the term “marriage.”  With DOMA’s Section 3 in place prior to Windsor, committed couples in New Jersey—in marriages or civil unions—were similarly, if not equally, situated regarding substantive rights and privileges.  But with Section 3 invalidated and many federal agencies conferring federal benefits only to married same-sex couples, not couples in civil unions, New Jersey’s committed same-sex couples do not receive equal protection as promised by Lewis.  The decision underscores just how much there is in a name.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

Perhaps you, like me, sometimes find yourself wondering, “What ever happened to that delightful actor Jason Patric, star of the beloved 1987 film The Lost Boys?” I have a partial answer to that question. He is a biological father who is fighting to become a legal father to a child he shares with an ex-girlfriend. The story is more interesting than it might initially seem because of the way that Patric’s child was conceived.

The child in the middle of this custody dispute is named Gus and his mother, Danielle Schreiber, is Patric’s ex-girlfriend. According to published reports, Patric and Schreiber were not in a relationship when Gus was conceived or born. Patric donated his sperm to Schreiber, in the same way that thousands of men donate or sell sperm each year for infertility treatments for women to whom they have no connection. Schreiber conceived in a doctor’s office. If the two were a married couple and the pregnancy resulted from fertility treatment using the husband’s sperm, there would be no problem with Patric’s claim that he is both a genetic and legal father. But that was not the case here, and their accounts of their post-birth expectations are, unsurprisingly, very different.

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Neutering Parents: Parents’ Sexual Liberty and Marriage

Recent reports of a Texas state court order requiring a divorced custodial mother’s cohabiting female partner to stay away between 9 pm and 7 am while the children were in the home brings to mind the continued discrimination against same-sex couples and same-sex couples with children through custody law, despite major strides on the marriage access front.  In my 2012 article The Neutered Parent, I explore the ways in which custody law has historically been used to enforce norms of sexuality against women and sexual minorities, particularly to discipline sexuality into a marital framework.  The problem with this judicial action, of course, is that same-sex couples may not marry in Texas.  The wider availability of marriage, however, would not necessarily diminish the assumption inherent in such “morality clauses,” that parental sexuality is best pursued in a marital context.  Broader access to marriage/marriage rights, including as conferred by the federal government following Windsor, should prompt us to consider with greater attention the rights of parents outside of the marital sphere.  Analysis of the latest Census data highlights the class-based disparities in who gets married and who doesn’t.  Nonmarital parents constitute a significant and growing percentage of parents.  These reports raise the question of how custody law should address such realities of contemporary family life.  Is the answer to bring more parents into the marital fold?  The Texas case suggests continued reliance on heterosexual, marriage-based norms of parental sexuality.  As I discuss in The Neutered Parent, the ALI’s 2002 amendments to custody provisions pertaining to parental sexuality fail to foreclose the types of thinking that animate discriminatory custody decisions.  While the ALI suggests focusing on parental “conduct,” rather than relying on biased assumptions about how parental sexuality and nonmarital sexuality pertain to children’s best interests, the ALI might provide more explicit criteria for what qualifies as relevant conduct.  Without such clarification, actions that might not read as “sexual conduct” in a marital setting, like a parent’s private consumption of pornographic material, might look like evidence of relevant conduct in a nonmarital setting.  This is because of what I describe in The Neutered Parent as the perceived “sexual salience” of nonmarital parents in judicial determinations of custody.  Greater clarity regarding relevant parent conduct can better serve sexual liberty interests as promised by Lawrence v. Texas.

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What It Means to Talk about Reproductive Justice

In my first post, I offered a truncated discussion of reproductive justice (RJ) in which I strongly asserted that RJ is not solely, or even primarily, about abortion. I then went on to write a blog post about abortion, so I forgive you if you think that I was being deceptive. Perhaps in that post I could have directed you to check out the schedule for a conference that I’ve been organizing at my law school called, Beyond Roe: Reproductive Justice in a Changing World, which will take place on October 11. That schedule, while certainly not ignoring abortion, also considers issues of faith and reproduction, choices in childbirth, assisted reproduction and women’s equality, access to contraception and more, which illustrates my point about how wide a shadow the RJ umbrella casts. In this post, to further illustrate my point, I am going to write about examples of reproductive regulation, some more overt than others, that fall squarely within the rubric of RJ and offer some ideas about how a justice lens helps illuminate critical issues and lead us toward resolution.

As I wrote previously, reproductive justice (RJ) is about the right to have children, to not have children, and to parent children in safe and healthy environments, which means that its reach is expansive. That expansive reach is absolutely necessary in the world of reproductive hierarchies in which we all reside. I use the term reproductive hierarchies to reflect the reality that individual decisions about reproduction are subject to varying levels of approbation or disapproval as expressed through public policy and law. While our system creates benefits for many of those who procreate and finds ways to encourage their procreation and support their parenting, for instance by giving tax breaks for child care and education costs, there are many others whose choices about whether and how to bear and beget are less accepted. For instance, an undocumented immigrant who gives birth to a child on American soil may get accused by many of giving birth to a so-called “anchor baby”— a pejorative term used to refer to certain children born in the United States to non-citizen parents. Young women who give birth while still in high school or college are subject to various penalties, including being asked to leave their schools or being forced to leave because of a lack of support for young parents. There are those who strongly believe that people who are LGBT should not procreate or parent and many state laws either do not protect LGBT people from discrimination in access to the tools of assisted reproduction or deny stability to families created by same sex couples. Even in the absence of pregnancy, women are subject to strictures that can be significantly limiting economically and professionally based on concerns about risks to a potential fetus. Breastfeeding mothers who work outside of the home have to contend with employers who provide inadequate or no time or unacceptable space in which to pump breast milk during the day, thus making it harder or impossible for women to effectuate a choice to breastfeed. Individuals living with intellectual disabilities, especially women, are at risk for non-consensual sterilizations sometimes without adequate procedures in place to protect their reproductive interests.

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Special Kids, Special Parents

First, many thanks to my exceptional and delightful colleague, Danny Citron, for inviting me to blog on Concurring Opinions. My blogging goal is to get you to focus on how law and policy could attend to the needs of family caregivers of special needs children. “Four in ten adults in the U.S. are caring for an adult or child with significant health issues,” according to a new Pew Research Center study. One would think that this large and growing population of family caregivers would command some attention. If they refused to do the job, after all, millions of frail elderly people, permanently-disabled veterans, and chronically-ill and disabled children could be left with nobody to meet their physical, emotional or medical needs. Social welfare organizations and institutions would be overrun, and social provision expenditures would skyrocket.

Refusing to do the job is not an option for many family caregivers, of course, for thousands of reasons, including love, duty and generosity of spirit. But many pay a price in terms of physical health, social isolation, and economic security. In my work about families raising children with special needs, I argue that we need to find ways to spread the costs so that they do not continue to fall almost exclusively on family members who step up.

Here are three examples of law and policy being blind (or at least astigmatic) to the impact of care-giving on these parents. First, when a child’s parents divorce or separate, family law entitles the parent who lives with the child to child support and, in some unusual situations, alimony. Child support is calculated on the basis of the child’s needs, and alimony is determined based on what the payee needs. Both assume that, ordinarily, both of the child’s parents will be economically productive. Where the parent’s special care-giving responsibilities interfere with that parent earning a living, however, child support and alimony are not usually adjusted–there’s no “chalimony.” Second, the public benefits system picks up very little of slack for parents when special care-giving responsibilities interfere with the parent’s earning capacity. Worse yet, since the mid-1990s, states became subject to increasingly stringent requirements in federal law about tying public benefits to the efforts of recipients to get and hold employment. A different route is not unimaginable: in 2009, a stipend was enacted for family caregivers of veterans left permanently disabled during their service in recent wars. Nothing similar, however, exists for parents. Third, if a child’s special needs affect his or her ability to benefit from school, federal law has guaranteed since the mid-1970s that the child will nonetheless be provided with a “free and appropriate public education.” The statute is not blind to the child’s caregivers; in fact, it gives parents specific rights in terms of participating in planning the child’s educational program. What it does not do, however, is make sure that parents can exercise their rights in ways that make sense if their lives are over-stressed because they are caring for special needs children.

As my work continues, I’m looking for additional examples of law and policy that attend to the needs of family caregivers for special needs children, and to those that don’t. If you can suggest a new avenue of research, please let me know.

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Prohibitions on Egg and Sperm Donor Anonymity and the Impact on Surrogacy

Egg and sperm donations are an integral part of the infertility industry. The donors are usually young men and women who donate relying on the promise of anonymity. This is the norm in the United States. But, internationally things are changing. A growing number of countries have prohibited egg and sperm donor anonymity. This usually means that when the child who was conceived by egg or sperm donation reaches the age of eighteen he can receive the identifying information of the donor and meet his genetic parent.

An expanding movement of commentators is advocating a shift in the United States to an open identity model, which will prohibit anonymity. In fact, last year, Washington state adopted the first modified open identity statute in the United States. Faced by calls for the removal of anonymity, an obvious cause for concern is how would prohibitions on anonymity affect people’s willingness to donate egg and sperm. Supporters of prohibitions on anonymity argue that they only cause short-term shortages in egg and sperm supplies. However, in a study I published in 2010, I showed that unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. My study examined three jurisdictions, which prohibited donor gamete anonymity: Sweden, Victoria (an Australian state) and the United Kingdom. It showed that all these jurisdictions share dire shortages in donor gametes accompanied by long wait-lists. The study concluded that although prohibitions on anonymity were not the sole cause of the shortages, these prohibitions definitely played a role in their creation.

In a new article, titled “Unintended Consequences: Prohibitions on Gamete Donor Anonymity and the Fragile Practice of Surrogacy,” I examine the potential effect of the adoption of prohibitions on anonymity in the United States on the practice of surrogacy. Surrogacy has not been part of the international debate on donor gamete anonymity. But the situation in the United States is different. Unlike most foreign jurisdictions that adopted prohibitions on anonymity, the practice of surrogacy in the United States is particularly reliant on donor eggs because of the unique legal regime governing surrogacy here.  Generally, there are two types of surrogacy arrangements: traditional surrogacy and gestational surrogacy. In a traditional surrogacy arrangement the surrogate’s eggs are used and she is the genetic mother of the child, while in gestational surrogacy the intended mother’s eggs or a donor’s eggs are used and the surrogate is not the genetic mother of the conceived child. Most U.S. states that expressly allow surrogacy provide legal certainty only to gestational surrogacy, which relies heavily on donor eggs, while leaving traditional surrogacy in a legal limbo. Without legal certainty, the intended parents may not be the legal parents of the conceived child, and instead the surrogate and even her husband may become the legal parents. Infertility practitioners endorse the legal preference for gestational surrogacy also for psychological reasons, believing that a surrogate who is not genetically related to the baby is less likely to change her mind and refuse to hand over the baby.

The adoption of prohibitions on anonymity in the United States could destabilize the practice of surrogacy in a way that did not occur in other countries that adopted these prohibitions. If, as has happened elsewhere, prohibitions on anonymity will play a role in creating shortages in donor egg supplies in the United States, this could affect the practice of surrogacy in two ways. Individuals seeking surrogacy may need to resort to traditional surrogacy, which does not rely on donor eggs, with the accompanying legal uncertainty. Alternatively, those deterred by the uncertainty enveloping traditional surrogacy may refrain from seeking surrogacy altogether, resulting in a significant contraction of  the practice of surrogacy in the United States. These potential complications suggest that those supporting the adoption of prohibitions on anonymity in the United States, should consider these changes with great caution and think beyond the traditional debate about the privacy of the donors, the privacy and procreational interests of the intended parents, the best interests of the children and the direct effect on gamete supplies.

 

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Intensive Parenting as a Legal Standard: Arresting Mother for Sending Children to Bus Stop

An unfortunate event took place this week.  A six year old boy’s foot was run over by a school bus. As a result, the boy’s mother who sent the boy and his somewhat older brother unsupervised to the bus station was arrested and charged with child abuse and neglect.  It turns out that in 2012, sending a six year old and his older brother to await the school bus by themselves is an unacceptable parenting standard warranting parental arrest.

This made me think back to the 1970s, when I grew up in Israel, and from the age of six walked by myself to the bus station and took the public bus – not even a school bus — to school. Luckily, my foot was not run over by a bus. But even if it had I doubt my parents would have been arrested or even blamed for inappropriate parenting. All my classmates either walked by themselves up to twenty minutes to school or if they lived further away, as I did, took the public bus.

There is no doubt parenting norms have changed since I was a child. Many now recognize that parenting has become more intensive, involved and monitoring. In an article titled Over-Parenting, my co-author Zvi Triger and I worried about the impact of these changes on legal standards. We recognized that while intensive parenting carries some advantages and may be a suitable parenting practice for some, embedding it in legal standards would impose it on those culturally unwilling or financially unable to endorse it. We recognized that intensive parenting is mainly an upper-middle class practice that for others could become over-parenting.

Is it a good parenting norm to accompany young children to the bus stop? probably yes. But aren’t the real questions: Is the specific child mature enough to be safely standing at a bus stop ? Is the neighborhood a relatively safe neighborhood traffic and crime-wise? And also, can parents afford to wait with their child in the morning or do they have no choice but to rush off to work for an early morning shift in order to support their families? These are questions to be answered by parents not by the law.

 

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Normative Jurisprudence and Family Law

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this symposium on Robin’s fascinating new book, Normative Jurisprudence. The implications of Robin’s arguments reach across the law school curriculum and beyond. For purposes of this post, I would like to draw some connections between Robin’s work and family law.  Normative Jurisprudence can help us better understand how the law regulates the parent-child relationship.

First, Robin argues that the state frequently provides rights in ways that entrench existing power hierarchies, even as rights discourse purports to be liberating for all. Consider parental rights from this perspective. Many courts celebrate the rights they give to parents in sweeping terms, but Robin’s work can help us see how the specific rights that parents receive are often designed with privileged rather than poor families in mind. For instance, the Supreme Court famously declared in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) that “[t]he child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” This declaration appeared in a decision holding that parents have a constitutional right to send their children to private schools. In theory, that right extends to poor parents as much as wealthy ones. In reality, poor parents have little means of affording private education.

Second, Robin argues that legal discourse prioritizing rights can actually obscure questions related to welfare. Examining the parent-child relationship through this frame is also illuminating. Poor parents may have a formal right to send their children to private school, but focusing on this right can obscure a more pressing issue that poor parents confront—the inadequacy of many public schools. Similarly, poor parents have constitutionalized procedural protections before the state takes custody of their children, but the provision of these rights can obscure how poor parents have no right to access the safe housing, adequate food, and other resources that children need to thrive. Indeed, the welfare system that exists for poor parents and children increasingly disavows the idea that the poor might have an entitlement to the basic means of subsistence. Instead, welfare programs provide meager benefits at the discretion of legislatures and routinely subject poor parents who receive these benefits to investigatory, instrumental, and interventionist state regulation.

Robin also notes how the law often treats the fact that people have consented to a legal regime as a reason to shield that regime from further critical scrutiny. The legal regulation of poor families starkly illustrates the limits of relying on consent. In theory, poor parents “agree” to the harsh and rights-denying terms of welfare programs as a condition of receiving aid, but in practice impoverished parents have few alternatives but to consent. Consider family cap laws in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, a leading federal-state welfare program.

Family caps, which at least nineteen states currently impose in some form, deny or limit TANF benefits to children conceived while their parents are already receiving TANF. For example, New Jersey’s TANF program provides that a family of two will ordinarily receive up to $322 a month, a family of three will ordinarily receive up to $424 a month, and a family of four will ordinarily receive up to $488 a month. These scant benefits are unlikely to cover a family’s basic needs, and New Jersey’s family cap limits them even further. New Jersey’s family cap means that a family that enters TANF with two people is still limited to just $322 a month if another child is born, $102 less than New Jersey itself otherwise thinks necessary for three people’s subsistence. A family that enters TANF with three people is still limited to just $424 a month if another child is born, $64 less than New Jersey otherwise thinks necessary for four people’s subsidence.

Family cap laws help illustrate how rights to freedom from state intervention do not help parents secure the necessary resources to raise their children. The benefits the TANF program offers are extraordinarily low and even lower if poor parents act in ways the state disfavors by having additional children. Poor parents have rights, but not to welfare. And when impoverished parents seek welfare, states feel free to impose extraordinary pressure on parents’ most personal decisions. In practice, rights talk often provides little protection for the most vulnerable.

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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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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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