Parental figures, even if not the actual parents, will gain better standing in Utah courts.
People who aren't blood relatives but are like family to thousands of Utah children will get legal standing in Utah courts during child custody deliberations and visitation decisions under a bill that received final approval in the House on Thursday.
Stepparents, grandparents, siblings, some extended family members and legal guardians who have an established relationship and continuing interest in the well-being of a child are for the first time being recognized as legally important. The bill instructs courts to factor in their involvement when weighing what's best for children who are orphaned or caught in the middle of a divorce battle.
SB186, which was approved in the Senate earlier this week, doesn't give family and extended family a say in such cases but grants them standing with the court, said House sponsor Kay McIff, R-Richfield.
"This defines that situation when you move beyond a blood parent," McIff said. "Without the bill, the blood parent, no matter how far removed from fulfilling the parenting role, would still have deference."
The legislation was written in response to a ruling by the Utah Supreme Court, which overturned a lower court's decision to grant a stepparent child visitation after the couple separated. In a ruling made a year ago, the court found that a domestic partner in a separated same-sex couple had no right under Utah law to seek visitation of her ex-partner's biological daughter.
The lesbian couple had agreed to have a child and raise it together then separated when the child was 2 years old. The ex-partner petitioned and received a lower court ruling granting visitation. The judge said it was in the best interest of the child to have both women involved in the child's life.
It may have been in the child's best interest, but granting visitation is not afforded to the ex-partner under Utah law, the Supreme Court ruled in striking down the decision. In order for visitation to be granted, current law would have to be changed, the ruling stated.
Lawmakers took that as an invitation to work some flexibility into the law. Ironically, not enough was added to afford equal protection for same-sex couples.
"This bill doesn't go that far," McIff said. "It covers siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, stepparents who have created a relationship within the legal definition of marriage under our law. I've had that discussion of whether others should be included, but that waits another day."
Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, who is gay and became emotional when she spoke about the bill, said he doesn't go that far or far enough.
"I know many parents who are loving parents even though they are not biologically related," Johnson said. "They contribute to them financially, they create emotional bonds, they contribute to the child's well-being and they would love to have relationships continue just like other parents. The House sponsor said that discussion is for another day. I want you to know I am waiting for that day."
The bill also doesn't take into account the role of godparents, who are like another set of parents in families who are Hispanic and Catholic, said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, R-Salt Lake."I mention this to point out that there is a variety of family members, including those within gay relationships, that play a role in our children's lives," she said. "I hope that we would one day extend equal protection to them."