(Trenton, NJ, August 6, 2014)—Today, an appellate court in New Jersey issued a decision recognizing that a same-sex stepparent who has raised a child from a young age can seek custody or visitation with the child if it is in child’s best interests. The court recognized that every child has a strong interest in maintaining a relationship with a psychological parent, even if the child has two other legal parents, and even if the psychological parent was not married to one of the parents.
The court explained that the purpose of the psychological parent doctrine is to protect a child from the “serious psychological harm” caused by terminating a parent-child bond. For this reason, a stepparent who is a psychological parent must be allowed to seek custody or visitation even where there are two fit parents because otherwise, “a court would be powerless to avert harm to a child through the severance of the child’s parental bond with a third party.” The court recognized that any person who lives with and cares for a child for a significant time and develops a parent-child bond with the encouragement of one of the legal parents must be allowed to seek custody or visitation if it is in the child’s best interests.
“We applaud the New Jersey court for recognizing that courts must be able to protect a child’s relationship with the people who have raised and cared for the child as a parent—no matter who that person is,” said Cathy Sakimura, National Center for Lesbian Rights Family Law Director. “Families are formed in countless different ways, and the law must be flexible enough to protect children from the deep psychological harm that comes from severing a parent-child bond.”
In the case K.A.F. v. D.L.M., D.M.* became a stepmother to Arthur when he was 18 months old, after beginning a committed relationship with his biological mother, K.A.F.* Arthur* also had an adoptive mother, F.D.,* who had joint custody of the child. For over seven years, D.M. and K.A.F. equally shared in parenting Arthur during their custodial time. D.M. and K.A.F. registered as domestic partners in New Jersey but were not able to marry there before their relationship ended. After their breakup, the biological mother tried to prevent D.M., the stepmother, from having any further contact with the child.
D.M. filed a complaint seeking custodial and visitation rights, but the trial court dismissed her complaint, ruling that a stepparent cannot be recognized as psychological parent where the child already has two fit parents.
D.M. was represented at the trial court and on appeal by Jerner & Palmer, P.C. attorneys Rebecca Levin and Tiffany L. Palmer and on appeal by Abbey True Harris of Fox Rothschild LLP. The National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a brief as amicus curiae through Lawrence S. Lustberg, Esquire of Gibbons, P.C.
* The child’s name has been changed, and the parents are referred to by their initials to protect the identities of the child and the parties.