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Appeal to Mississippi Sup. Court could have effects on custody battles across U.S.

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June 22, 2017
A case before the Mississippi Supreme Court that could change the way custody battles play out across the country has entered a new phase.

A challenge has been made that says a Rankin County court was correct when a judge deemed the parental rights of an anonymous sperm donor take precedent over a co-parent.

Without lawful termination of the donor’s parental rights via judicial decree, Christina cannot be recognized as the child’s parent. This would hold true whether the married couple was same-sex or opposite-sex. The Court’s reliance on adherence to existing law would not place an undue burden on couples who use Assisted Reproductive Technology no more than it places an undue burden on couples who adopt children. In each case the couple would have to follow the law to terminate the parental rights of the known/unknown parent by judicial decree and then be recognized by law as the child’s legal parent. This does not violate of the equal protection clause.

The case is clouded, essentially, by timing. The two women involved – Chris and Kim – entered a relationship 18 years ago, at a time when same-sex couples were not permitted to marry anywhere in the country.

They decided to create a family together and adopt a young boy. Because same-sex couples were not permitted to adopt jointly at that time in Mississippi, Kim alone served as the adoptive parent, but both women cared for him equally as his parents. After same-sex couples were permitted to marry, and the couple legally wed in Massachusetts, they brought their second child into the family through medically assisted reproductive technology, or A.R.T.

The women decided that Kimberly would carry the pregnancy, and they together selected an anonymous sperm donor. Their second son was born in 2010 and raised by the couple as equal co-parents.

Not long after, the couple split and filed for divorce. Both women shared joint physical custody and Chris paid child support.

Chris is appealing the Rankin County court decision that she cannot be placed on the child’s birth certificate, due to the fact that – under Mississippi law – the child already has two biological parents. The case could change the face of legal custody battles, depending on the outcome.

June 8, 2017
Chris Strickland is, in every since of the word, a mother.

She raised two boys – one adopted, another born to her now ex-wife via in vitro fertilization.

But according to a Rankin County trial court decision, she’s not a mother.

Chris Strickland and her former spouse, Kim, began dating in 1999. They decided to start a family together despite Mississippi’s ban on marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Their first son joined their family in 2006. Because of the adoption ban, they decided that Kim would be the parent to adopt.

The couple married in Massachusetts in 2009 and then began planning to expand their family, this time using reproductive technology. They agreed that Kim would try to get pregnant first. Together they chose a fertility clinic and the anonymous sperm donor. In 2010, Kim became pregnant. When their second son was born in 2011, Chris was the first to hold him. Because Mississippi did not recognize their marriage, only Kim was listed on the birth certificate, but the baby boy was given Chris’ last name. Both Chris and Kim are named as his parents on his birth announcement.

photo courtesy Chris Strickland

Chris and Kim raised their two children together, and for the first year of his life, Chris was the baby’s primary caretaker. The boys call Kim ‘mom’ and they call Chris ‘mama.’ When the couple’s relationship ended in 2013, Chris continued to parent their boys, visiting with and providing support for both children until Kim abruptly decided to cut all contact in August 2015, the same month that Kim married another spouse and Chris filed for divorce.

“She left me,” said Strickland “and I still shared visitation and responsibilities of the boys until I filled for divorce in August 2015. Then she took the kids from me for about 14 months.”

In May, 2016, the court ruled Kim’s second marriage void. In the final judgment of divorce, entered October 18, 2016, the court ruled that the anonymous sperm donor’s “rights” as a parent displaced the parental rights of the spouse. Finding that Chris was not a parent to either child, the court nonetheless ordered her to pay child support and awarded her visitation finding she was a person acting “in loco parentis.”

“The court carved out an exception to the rule that a child born to a married couple is the legal child of both spouses, ruling that children born as a result of assisted reproduction are the children of the mother and the anonymous sperm donor,” said Beth Littrell, Lambda Legal Counsel. “The lower court’s decision is demeaning and destabilizing, marking Chris and her children as unworthy of the usual protections married families rely on when adult relationships fail.”

Strickland boils down the issue: “I’m a non-biological parent, and I’m trying to be added to my son’s birth certificate and have legal rights to him as a biological parent would have.”

In early June, 2017, Chris filed an appeal in the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the trial court discriminated against a child based on the circumstances of his birth and contrary to his best interests and violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution by ignoring the familial relationship between Chris and her sons. By denying Chris’ status as the full legal parent of the child born to a married couple, the Court has marked Chris and her child—and all children born to married parents as a result of assisted reproduction—as inferior and unworthy of the usual parenting protections that come with marriage.

“Our sons have two mothers and they deserve the right to a legal relationship with both of their parents,” said Strickland. “These two precious boys are the world to me. I’m going to keep fighting to make good on my promise to love and care for them for the rest of my life.”

The Supreme Court’s decision could take months to reach. News Mississippi will continue to follow this story and it’s affects on marriage equality and child custody across the country.

photo courtesy of Chris Strickland

Dates and information provided by Lambda Legal Counsel.

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