NKY case among many on same-sex parents' rights

Posted at 8:12 PM, Feb 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-18 20:14:08-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A lesbian fighting for joint custody of a child borne by her ex-partner when they were still together won a court ruling Thursday in Kentucky that lets her case go forward.

The woman, identified in the court opinion as Amy, asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to block adoption proceedings by her ex-partner's husband while she seeks shared custody of the child, identified as Laura.

In a unanimous ruling, the state's high court sided with Amy.

Writing for the court, Justice Bill Cunningham said the case isn't about same-sex relationships, changing social mores or notions about the definition of family. The case has been "needlessly complicated by the injection of these considerations," he said.

"This is a case about people and their ability to participate in a lawsuit in which the outcome may adversely affect their interest," Cunningham wrote. "What we write here today applies equally to a myriad of human relationships including heterosexual parenting, boyfriends, girlfriends, grandparents and others. Most importantly, this case is about Laura."

The case is among several across the country involving wrenching personal questions about what it means to be a parent under today's ever-changing definition of family in the eyes of the law.

While a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the ruling hardly settled the myriad family law issues surrounding the custody of children. Compounding the problem, the definition of "parent" differs from state to state, leaving same-sex parents with no biological connection to a child vulnerable to losing parental rights.

In the Kentucky case, the 9-year-old girl bears Amy's middle and last name. When the child was born in 2006, Amy cut the umbilical cord. They lived in the same household until the girl was 4, and Amy once carried the child on her insurance plan.

But they are not biologically related. The girl's biological mother -- Amy's ex-partner -- became pregnant with the help of a sperm donor. Amy and the biological mother, identified as Melissa, separated in early 2011, but Amy continued to spend time with the child.

In 2012, Melissa married, and her husband, identified as Wesley, filed a court petition for stepparent adoption of the girl. Amy countered with a petition seeking joint custody.

The Kenton County Family Court ruled in 2014 that Amy had a legitimate claim to seek shared custody of the child. The state Court of Appeals reversed that decision, prompting the review by the state's highest court.

Cunningham called it a "logical decision" for the trial court to take up Amy's custody claim before dealing with the stepparent adoption matter.

"An order granting Wesley's adoption petition could impair or impede Amy's proffered custodial interest," he wrote.

Whether Amy ultimately succeeds in her custody petition is an issue for the trial court, Cunningham said.

One of Amy's attorneys, Christopher Clark, said the Supreme Court's decision ensures the family court hears all the available evidence to make a custody decision in the best interest of the child.

"We are pleased that our client will have her day in court to fight to preserve her relationship with her 9-year-old daughter," Clark said.

An attorney for Melissa and her husband did not immediately return a call seeking comment.


Associated Press Writer Adam Beam in Frankfort contributed to this report.