A conservative Salt Lake County lawmaker has proposed a bill that would forbid courts from awarding parental authority of a child against the wishes of the child's biological parent.
Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, pledged to run the legislation last summer following a Utah Supreme Court hearing in the case of a Utah woman fighting for visitation with her former lesbian partner's 4-year-old biological daughter.
Christensen said this week that HB148 is not solely intended to address that case or any others involving homosexual couples. It is simply, he said, an attempt to clear up a deficiency in the law.
But Keri Jones, whose battle with her former partner, Cheryl Pike Barlow, brought the issue to the forefront, thinks otherwise.
"I think it's totally an attack on (homosexuality)," Jones said. "I very much think it's about our family."
Until the Supreme Court rules in the case, Jones and Barlow are operating under a lower court's order that allows Jones to visit the child every other weekend and requires her to pay child support.
If HB148 passes, however, it could affect that order and, ultimately, the Supreme Court's decision.
"I'm scared to death, honestly," Jones said. "It could undo what we have done to get this far."
HB148 would forbid courts from invoking "in loco parentis" a Latin phrase meaning "in the place of a parent" to award parent-time, visitation, custody, legal guardianship, child support or adoption to a non-biological adult against the wishes of a biological or adoptive parent.
"In the Barlow case, judges with good intentions . . . ignored existing case law," Christensen said. "(HB148) is a clear codification of a well-established legal doctrine that has been misused in this case and others."
In loco parentis is meant to be a "temporary, voluntary delegation of parental authority," the Sandy lawmaker said. It should not, he said, be used "to force a biological mother to accept an agreement" with which she disagrees.
But Salt Lake City family law attorney Lauren Barros said there are many times when a neutral third party needs to weigh in on these emotional decisions. Often in situations involving separation or divorce, adults may harbor animosity or bitterness toward their former partner and act out of those feelings, rather than do what's best for their child, she said.
In loco parentis is determined on a case-by-case basis and judges take into account the bond between the non-biological adult and the child. "This bill would just say that children no longer have that right to continue that bond," said Barros, Jones' attorney.
The common-law legal doctrine is used in cases of step-parents and grandparents, as well as live-in boyfriends and girlfriends who wish to continue a relationship with their former partners' children after the relationship ends."There's just too many people in Utah that are in this situation," she said. "I would hope that (lawmakers) would recognize that it would dramatically change a law and would affect a lot more people, not just gay and lesbian couples."