Lawmakers need to update outdated parentage laws
My story shows why existing statutes are inadequate
AS A PARENT, I’m pretty typical. I love my son deeply, and I do everything I can to protect him and to make sure he has everything he needs—unconditional love, a home, a good education, and good health. But I can’t protect him from everything—especially outdated parentage laws that don’t automatically protect children born to LGBTQ parents like me through assisted reproduction.
By passing the Massachusetts Parentage Act, our Legislature can spare parents the heartache and terror that I endured to secure my legal relationship with my child. The bill is important because it would provide clarity in our laws about how to establish legal parentage no matter the sexual orientation, gender, or marital status of parents or the circumstances of the child’s birth. It would make clear that Massachusetts laws protect all families. Outdated laws harm families, as we have personally experienced.
My partner and I, with joy and excitement, planned together to start our family. We conceived our son through assisted reproduction, using a sperm donor who was known to us. Unfortunately, he was born prematurely while my partner was in North Carolina. I immediately traveled there and was with them in the hospital. Shaken by the experience, my partner and I married less than a week after his birth.
Because he was born in North Carolina while we were unmarried, however, I was not listed as a parent on his birth certificate. I also could not sign a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage, a legal document available to different gender parents that would have established my status as an equal legal parent to our son.
When our son was three years old, my partner and I began to experience difficulties in our relationship, and we separated. During these challenges, the Department of Children and Families removed our son from our home. When they did so, I was told I would be able to visit my son almost immediately.
That turned out to be untrue, however. DCF recognized my partner—his birth mother—as his legal parent but not me, because our parentage laws are outdated and gendered. As a result, I was not appointed counsel, and I was not allowed to participate in his removal hearing. It was devastating and heartbreaking for me and my son.
But as I later learned through pro bono legal help, DCF’s refusal to recognize me as a parent was wrong. Under Massachusetts case law, specifically the decision in a case called Partanen v. Gallagher, I was, in fact, a presumed parent to my son. And thanks to that pro bono legal help, my parentage was clarified and secured.
The impact of the outdated parentage laws was most damaging for my son. He was placed in foster care, separated from his parents and family, for 18 months. During the legal marathon to get him returned, I faced continual humiliation and a devaluation of my role as his parent simply because I am a non-biological mother. My terror and worry for my son was heightened due to COVID-19—I was unable to visit him in person and felt that he should be home with me rather than with strangers in foster care.
A judge finally recognized that I am an equal legal parent, and my son has since been returned to my custody. It was a profound relief to have him safely home, particularly during the pandemic. Our separation was long, painful, and unnecessary. Ultimately, if Massachusetts had up-to-date parentage laws our family would have been spared this disruption and my son would not have experienced the trauma of a year-and-a-half separation from his family.
In Massachusetts, we need parentage laws that are updated, clear, and gender inclusive so that all children are protected equally under the law and have the security of parentage they need, no matter how their family is formed. The Massachusetts Parentage Act would ensure that there are standards to protect children born through assisted reproduction to unmarried parents. The bill would ensure that our “paternity” laws are inclusively worded to clearly apply to all children, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of their parents.I was a parent because of an SJC case that interpreted the statutes in a gender-neutral way, but DCF staff and the court system weren’t aware of this case and the protections my son and I deserved. I should have been appointed counsel from day one. I should have been included in any and all hearings about my son. I should have been treated as the parent that I was and am. I don’t want any other child or family to experience this unnecessary stress and heartache.
Kam Thompson lives in central Massachusetts. Her email is email@example.com