Wisconsin Court Tells Lesbian: Legal Adoption, Not ‘Nurturing,’ Gives Parental Rights

A Wisconsin appeals court has ruled against a woman seeking joint custody of her former lesbian partner’s adopted children, saying that only legal adoptive status, not years of caretaking, provide parental rights.

The District 4 Court of Appeals ruled against a woman identified in court documents as Wendy M., who was seeking legal guardianship of two children whom her partner, identified as Liz K., had adopted from Guatemala.

“Wisconsin law neither provides for joint adoption of a child by an unmarried couple, nor permits same-sex couples to marry.  Thus, gay and lesbian couples in close, committed relationships cannot jointly adopt a child,” observed the court.

Both Wendy and Liz had been living together for seven years before adopting Olivia and Sofia. The court record states that the couple had decided that Liz would be the legal adoptive parent of the children, instead of Wendy, because she was a practicing attorney and could add Olivia and Sofia to her health insurance. Over the next five years, Wendy stayed at home with the
children, while Liz provided financially.

However, after the relationship split, Liz retained legal custody of the children. While both women have retained an “informal” parenting relationship, Liz refused to agree to give Wendy guardianship status after an incident involving Wendy as she was taking care of the children. The nature of the incident is not mentioned in the court record.

Wendy then sought the court to coerce Liz into giving her guardianship status, arguing that she was a parent under the “ordinary usage” of the term as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (2006), which includes “one who … nurtures and raises a child.”

The court, however, said that the “application of a dictionary definition of parent is inappropriate”: statutory definitions, not dictionary entries, are the ones that matter in Wisconsin law.

“The term ‘parent’ is defined … as ‘either a biological parent … or a parent by adoption,’ a definition that plainly excludes Wendy,” the court stated.

They also cited state supreme court precedent, Barstad v. Frazier, which stated that having a relationship with a child was not sufficient criteria to bestow parental rights over the objections of a fit parent. Only if Liz were “drastically” harming the welfare of her children, they said, would the state have a right to interfere.

A different story is playing out in a Vermont case, in which a lesbian with no biological relation to her ex-partner’s child convinced a court to award her parental rights despite lacking legal adoptive status.

Lawyers in the custody fight are now disputing in the Vermont Supreme Court district court judge Richard Cohen’s decision to strip ex-lesbian Lisa Miller of all parental rights to her daughter Isabella, 8, whom she conceived by artificial insemination. Miller stopped allowing visitations after Isabella complained that she wanted to kill herself following the visits, and had been forced to bathe naked with Jenkins.

After being ordered to hand custody of Isabella over to Jenkins, Miller disappeared last year with her daughter in tow. No one has reported having had contact with Miller since November 20 at the latest.

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