For decades, American culture has defined a family as a relatively simple nuclear unit of mother, father and children. However, in recent years the definition of family has shifted as society has become more open to other configurations, like single-parent households and parents who happen to be the same sex. Now, New York's highest court has expanded the definition of what it means to be a parent to include someone who is neither biologically related to the child nor an adoptive parent.
Tuesday’s ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals stemmed from a case between a gay couple over custody for their child. The two women, in the case known only as Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C., had been romantic partners for years and decided to raise a child together. In 2008, Elizabeth became pregnant through artificial insemination, and while Brooke never formally adopted the boy, she still gave him her last name. Things got legally tricky a few years later, when the two women ended their relationship and Elizabeth tried to cut off Brooke's contact to the child, Alan Feuer reports for The New York Times. Brooke sued for custody, but was turned down by a lower court because of her lack of a traditional connection to the boy.
“The court clearly heard us,” Eric Wrubel, a lawyer who represented the child in the case, tells Feuer. “They clearly see that the bright lines of biology and adoption just don’t fit today with marriage equality. They understand that couples and families these days are not just mom and dad, and husband and wife.”
By expanding the definition of a parent in regards to their rights, the court has introduced a greater flexibility in how it handles complicated custody battles. For example, a parent who never formally adopted a spouse’s child from an earlier marriage could now argue for visitation and custody rights, G. Clay Whittaker reports for Popular Science. At the same time, a man who raised a child but later found that he isn’t the biological father won’t necessarily have to face long, complicated court battles in order to secure custody over the child.
New York isn’t the first state to make moves toward expanding the definition of parenthood, as Feuer points out, citing examples like Oklahoma and South Carolina.
“We’ve seen this all over the country, even in states that might be called gay unfriendly,” Nancy Polikoff, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, tells Feuer. “Many courts have simply said that this person looks like a parent and you cannot just eliminate them from the child’s life. To have New York, where there are so many same-sex couples, be an outlier was a problem. But this catches New York up.”
The ruling does raise new questions about the criteria that now defines parenthood in New York state, as the court did not explicitly write any out. While the court acknowledged that these questions will likely have to be addressed in the future, for now the ruling ensures that children can still see their parents, regardless of whether or not they are biologically related.