In early October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing children in California to have more than two legal parents. The passage of this law—which goes into effect at the beginning of 2014—makes California the fifth state to recognize additional parents if failing to do so would harm the child.
While critics of the legislation have argued that it will create the potential for even more acrimonious custody battles, divorce attorney Lisa Helfend Meyer says that, if anything, the new law will protect important relationships that have been established and nurtured over time.
This law will be a tremendously positive event for children who have had relationships with an adult for years, only to be separated from that individual because he or she is not legally recognized as their parent," Meyer explains. "It paves the way for both parents and children to continue with the relationship."
Meyer has exclusively practiced family law for more than 30 years and is certified as a family law specialist by The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. As the founder of Meyer, Olson, Lowy & Meyers, LLP, a preeminent female-owned family law firm in Southern California, she has handled a number of cases involving people who weren't legally recognized by the court system as parents, despite having fulfilled that role for many years in a child's life.
"I've worked on contested adoption cases where the adopted parents were forced to give the child back to the biological parent, disrupting the bond and attachment that the child had formed with them," Meyer says as an example. "The trauma that the adoptive parents and the child experienced following the termination of that relationship was truly devastating, both in the short term and the long term."
In another custody case, Meyer represented the boyfriend of a woman who worked in an adult club near an airport. Though Meyer's client was not the biological father of the woman's child, he was an integral part of the girl's life during the time that he was dating her mother. "For three years, my client was the one actually raising the child—doing everything a parent would do in terms of taking care of her, comforting her when she was sad, preparing meals for her, and providing parental guidance," Meyer notes.
When the couple broke up, the woman told Meyer's client that he could no longer see the child, and they ended up going to court over the matter. There, the judge had the man take a blood test to determine paternity. When the test came back, it indicated that the probability of the man being the child's father was less than one percent. Yet the judge decided in favor of Meyer's client, reasoning that there was still a small chance that the man could be the child's father.
"I could tell the judge really wanted to give my client parental rights, and the reason he decided that my client was the girl's father basically came down to him being kind and wanting to do what was in the child's best interest," Meyer says. "Had this new law been in effect at the time, the judge would not have had to find a technical reason to decide in our favor; instead, he could have found that failing to recognize more than two parents would have been detrimental to the child's welfare."
Meyer has long been an advocate for putting the best interests of children before the state's legal definition of what constitutes a parent. More than 20 years ago, she even authored an article addressing the increasing complexity of custody-related legal issues, and how those issues—such as surrogacy and same-sex relationships—demanded a broader perspective on parent and child relationships.
"I never thought it was fair that people who participated in a child's life as a parent could be torn away from that relationship simply because they didn't fit the legal definition of a parent," Meyer says. "I think this law will be a real benefit to the children of California because ultimately labels are not important—what is of paramount concern is whether you raised the child and whether the child will be harmed if that attachment is ruptured."