Learning lessons from a tragedy

Posted on 06 Jan 2011 at 5:00pm

As a family mourns the loss of a daughter distraught over the outcome of a custody battle, one attorney explains the legal questions over who is — or isn’t — a parent

Michelle May O’Neil
Special Contributor

ParentThe death of Debie Hackett was a tragically shocking end to a family drama that has, to some extent, played out in the local Dallas media. Through her experience and even through her tragic death, Ms. Hackett has provided an opportunity to educate many who are in similar situations.

There seems to be quite a bit of misinformation about her family law case and the litigation that recently ended.

Many people live in families with children that they emotionally consider as “their children.” Knowledge of how the law applies to their relationship with the children in their lives gives power, so even in the midst of this tragedy there is something to be learned.

Texas law has a very specific definition of a “parent.” Texas Family Code defines a parent as:
• the mother (biological);
• a man presumed to be the father (because he was married to the mother when the child was born or at the time of conception);
• a man legally determined to be the father;
• a man who has been adjudicated to be the father by a court of competent jurisdiction;
• a man who has acknowledged his paternity under applicable law; or,
• an adoptive mother or father.

No matter how much love, caring or emotional bonding exists, if someone does not fall into one of these categories, then they are not a “parent” in the eyes of the Texas courts or Legislature.

While a person may feel emotionally connected to a child, the law provides no status for a person who “feels like a parent.” Even if a person is treated like a parent, or even considered a parent by the child, that person cannot be elevated to the legal status of a parent if she does not meet one of the statutory definitions.

So, you either are a “parent” under the law, entitled to the legal privileges and obligations of a parent, or you are not.

Parents have certain rights that are guaranteed under the U. S. Constitution as well as the laws of each state. The most fundamental of these rights is the right to make parenting decisions without questioning or interference from those outside the parenting relationship.

In other words, as long as the parent makes decisions that are not harmful to the child, the parent has the sanctity to make decisions for the child. Only when a decision can bring harm to a child does the law provide a method of reviewing parental decision-making.

The right to make parenting decisions includes the right to decide who the child can be around, spend the night with and visit.

This right is fundamental, like the freedom of speech or freedom of religion, and as a result is heavily protected by federal as well as state law, and highly regarded by most of our courts.

So, in Ms. Hackett’s situation, her former partner was the legal parent of the child and had the right to decide whether the child would associate with Ms. Hackett after their break-up. Only by proving that the former partner’s parenting decisions are harmful to the child in a court-at-law would Ms. Hackett have been able to have a court overrule the parent’s decision to exclude Ms. Hackett from the child’s life.

The jury trial that Ms. Hackett and her former partner went through in December involved the question of the parent’s fitness in her decision-making. The trial was not about whether the parent versus Ms. Hackett should have custody, what time the child should spend with either of them, who should decide what school the child attends, or even an allocation of child support.

The jury decided that the parent was a fit parent. That decision precluded Ms. Hackett from seeking any other orders regarding the child, such as the right to visitation over the parent’s objection.

Some believe that the law discriminated against Ms. Hackett because of the nature of their same-sex relationship. However, Ms. Hackett stood in the same position as a heterosexual person that does not meet the legal definition of a parent.

The law applies equally to any person that is not a parent seeking to intervene in the parenting relationship.

For example, consider a heterosexual married couple where one member of the couple has a child from a prior relationship. When that couple breaks up, the partner who is not a parent would be in the same situation as Ms. Hackett, left to the parental decision-making of the parent to continue the relationship with the child.

Barring proof that the parent is unfit — that her decisions as a parent are harmful to the child — the non-parent would have no right to interfere.

Grandparents often face this problem as well. Many grandparents assist in parenting their grandchildren yet cannot seek court ordered access to the grandchild absent proof of parental unfitness.

As a Dallas custody lawyer, I counsel many non-parents in situations like Ms. Hackett’s. The most important piece of advice I give them is to adopt their partner’s child while the relationship is good and everyone is on the same page.

Adoption grants them legal status as a parent and gives them the legal rights and constitutional protections that come with it.

This then allows — mandates — a relationship between the adoptive parent and the child after the romantic relationship with the other parent ends. Without adoption, the law provides no relief from the high hurdle of the parental presumption over which a nonparent must cross to even have the chance of gaining court-ordered conservatorship, possession with and/or access to the child over the legal parent’s objection.

The current state of Texas law draws no line regarding the gender of the parent or parents a child has. So a child, by adoption, can have two moms or two dads, provided a judge finds such adoption to be in the child’s best interest.

Michelle May O’Neil specializes in Texas family law cases and works specifically with gay parents regarding relationship and custody issues. She is the author of two books, All About Texas Law and Kids, published in 2010, and The Basics of Texas Divorce Law, published in 2011. Ms. O’Neil practices law with her firm O’Neil Attorneys in Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 7, 2011.

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