Thursday, June 1, 2023

With LGBTQ families facing ongoing and increasing discrimination across the country, updates to state laws are urgently needed to ensure all children can have a secure legal tie to their parents 

Five leading national organizations that advocate for LGBTQ families joined forces on a new report, Relationships at Risk: Why We Need to Update State Parentage Laws to Protect Children and Families: Movement Advancement Project (MAP), COLAGE, Family Equality, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and NCLR.  

The report details how the current patchwork of parentage laws across the country – many of which haven’t been updated in decades – leaves LGBTQ parents and their children vulnerable. Nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. are raising children under the age of 18, many of them in states that still have outdated laws. This means that far too many children in LGBTQ families are potentially at risk. 

Why Parentage Is So Important to Children and LGBTQ Families 

Parentage is the legal relationship between a child and their parents, which is essential to children’s security and well-being. Parentage is crucial so that parents can make critical healthcare and education decisions for their children, and so that children have access to important benefits including insurance coverage, social security survivor benefits, and inheritance. Legal parentage also ensures a child does not lose their important connection to a parent in circumstances such as the death of one parent or the end of the parents’ relationship. 

“All children, regardless of who their parents are, should be able to establish a secure legal tie to the parents who love and care for them. Yet, many states’ parentage laws are more than 40 years out of date. This leaves too many LGBTQ families navigating complicated and costly systems to safeguard their connections to their children.,” said Naomi Goldberg, Deputy Director of MAP and the lead author of the report. 

State-By-State Examination of Parentage Laws Shows Many Are Out of Date and Out of Step with How Families Form 

The report reviews the ways in which legal parentage may be established, which states have updated their laws, and in which states LGBTQ families remain at risk. Families form in many different ways. Yet despite the increasing number of LGBTQ families and the increasing number of all families formed through assisted reproduction, to date, fewer than a dozen states have comprehensively updated their parentage laws to reflect the diverse ways today’s families form.  

More than half of states lack clear, accessible, and equitable pathways for LGBTQ parents to establish parentage. As a result, many families face complicated, time-consuming, and costly processes to establish legal ties between parents and children. LGBTQ parents in many states must still undergo demeaning and unnecessary “home studies” to adopt their own children and spend thousands in legal costs to secure their parentage. And for many parents that cost, and access to the courts, is completely out of reach, leaving them at tremendous risk because their state has not updated its parentage laws. In the most heart-wrenching cases, children have been pulled into the child welfare system because a parent who loves and cares for them wasn’t recognized as a legal parent, and non-birth parents who planned for and raised their kids have been stripped of their parental rights because a court relied on outdated laws that fail to acknowledge the existence of same-gender parents. 

“LGBTQ families are a part of every community across the country, yet many LGBTQ families still face expensive and demeaning barriers to providing legal security for their children,” said Stacey Stevenson, CEO of Family Equality. “Parents shouldn’t have to navigate a complicated legal system just to ensure their kids are protected.”  

“LGBTQ families form through love, intention and care and children of LGBTQ parents, like all children, need and deserve to know their families are secure. Our laws should protect families, not create barriers to their stability,” said Jordan Budd, Executive Director of COLAGE. 

“We are seeing far too many heart-breaking examples of the discrimination that LGBTQ+ parents continue to face in the United States. When states and courts refuse to give LGBTQ families the same protections as other families, it leaves parents at risk of being shut out of their child’s life and children at risk of losing a parent who loves and cares for them,” said Nesta Johnson, NCLR Family Law Staff Attorney. 

Progress is Happening Across the Country to Update State Parentage Laws and to Protect LGBTQ Families 

While detailing the importance of legal parentage and outlining the risks to LGBTQ families, the report also shows the path forward. It highlights states that have taken crucial steps to update their parentage laws in recent years, including Colorado, Connecticut, and Rhode Island–and states like Massachusetts, which has the opportunity right now to protect LGBTQ families.  

“Families form in many ways and our laws must reflect that so children have equality and security. States like Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Colorado have led the way by updating their laws to ensure child-centered, equal, and accessible paths to legal parentage for all families, including LGBTQ families. Especially as LGBTQ families face growing threats across the country, we urgently need more states to pass comprehensive parentage reform to recognize contemporary families and protect all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth,” said Polly Crozier, Director of Family Advocacy at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). 

Story spotlight: parents should not be at the mercy of chance 
Outdated parentage laws can mean children don’t have their parents when they need them most, like during a medical crisis, as happened to parents Moira and Hillary.  

When Moira underwent an emergency c-section and their daughter June was immediately rushed to the NICU, Hillary had no legal standing as a parent because their second-parent adoption was still pending. With Moira incapacitated and Hillary’s parental status unclear, neither parent was able to make medical decisions for June and the NICU staff were left to do what they thought was best. Thankfully they were kind enough to let Hillary be with June, but she knows that was not guaranteed.   

“Had we been at a different hospital, or had we interacted with different staff,” Hillary says,” I might have been shut out entirely. Even though things worked out, parents like us should not be at the mercy of chance.” 

Moira, Hillary and June’s story helped encourage the Rhode Island legislature to update their state parentage laws in 2020 to ensure other families don’t face that same uncertainty at a time of crisis. 

About the Report 

The report was authored by the Movement Advancement Project, in partnership with COLAGE, Family Equality, GLAD, and NCLR, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It is available online at: www.mapresearch.org/2023-parentage-report