Law must reflect the realities of modern families

Since the dawn of time, parental relationships have been much more fluid than the simplistic view that two parents rear children and raise them to adulthood. State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is working to bring California’s family law up to speed to fit the family dynamics that truly exist.

Under current law, the state’s family court recognizes only two people as parents. They don’t have to be the biological mother and father, of course. But a child can only have two in the eyes of the law.

But this definition is still too narrow to account for the myriad familial relationships that occur when adults marry each other, get divorced, have children out of wedlock, adopt or assume responsibility for raising a child. Familial and romantic situations are complicated, and the family law courts, hamstrung as they are by the presupposition that only two people can be parents, have been unable to fairly adjudicate custody rights, child support and other issues.

Leno has introduced Senate Bill 1476, which would allow family courts to treat the caregiver of a child as having a legitimate interest in, and responsibility for, the raising of a child. The caregiver could then be treated as a parent in the eyes of the law.

These “parents,” as the law stands now, must rise to the current standard of law. He or she must be the biological parent, for example, or be married to and living with the mother of the child. Or, in cases where the adults are not married,  a declaration of paternity must be signed.

But under Leno’s proposed law, there can be more than two of them. If a pregnant woman married a man who was not the father of her child, she, her husband and the father of her child could share parental rights and responsibilities. A divorced mother who remarried could share parental responsibilities with both her current and ex-husband. Gay and lesbian couples who want to share parenting with the sperm or egg donor of their children would be able to do so without legal complications.

In the modern world, this is just common sense. Too many children are left without parents as it is. And as families and marriages break up, children who would otherwise have a legal, loving guardian are condemned to foster care.

Religious conservatives have denounced Leno’s bill. Traditional Values Coalition spokesman Benjamin Lopez told The Sacramento Bee that the bill is just another attempt to “revamp, redefine, and muddy the waters” of the traditional family unit.

But our family waters have always been muddy. And if this bill passes, it will help children gain the
financial, emotional and social support they need to thrive in the modern world. Children with more than two parents would be eligible for enhanced health insurance, for example, or Social Security
benefits.

Leno’s bill already has become fodder for social conservatives who claim that the country is headed down into a moral sewer. But the fact is that this bill will make the lives of both children and parents better and less complicated.

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