Arkansas Supreme Court grants visitation rights to non-biological co-mom

Justice Donald L. Corbin

In a 5-2 decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 17 that a non-biological lesbian co-parent should be granted visitation rights.

In the case of Bethany v. Jones, the high court upheld the ruling of a lower court, even though Arkansas law forbids adoption by cohabiting same-sex couples. The decision was written by Associate Justice Donald L. Corbin.

The decision lists these as undisputed facts:

Bethany and Jones were same-sex partners from 2000 until 2008.

In 2003, the parties purchased a home together, with both of their names listed on the mortgage.

In 2004, the parties began to take steps toward having a family. A male friend of Jones’s agreed to donate sperm. Bethany agreed to carry the child because Jones was experiencing some health issues, including reproductive problems.

Through the process of artificial insemination, Bethany became pregnant, and the minor child was born in 2005.

After the child’s birth, Jones stayed home with the child and her parents became the child’s grandparents. Bethany has no relationship with her family so they were not involved in the child’s care.

In 2008, the couple split up. At that time, they shared custody. But Bethany began a relationship with another woman who is also raising a child and she wanted to end Jones’ involvement and denied her visitation rights.

Jones’ filed for breach of contract. Bethany charged her former partner had no standing.

The court found Jones’ claims similar to that of a step-parent and decided that since they had planned to raise the child together at the time of birth and Jones had provided care for the child until the break up, she did have visitation rights.

—  David Taffet

All families deserve equal access to housing

Editor’s Note: The following article was submitted by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan in the wake of last week’s announcement that HUD has proposed new rules ensuring that LGBT families will not face discrimination in access to housing.

SHAUN DONOVAN  |  Special Contributor

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Last month, we were reminded of Dr. King’s insight once again, as President Barack Obama signed legislation repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law.

It was a moment, the president noted, “more than two centuries in the making.”

The historic repeal of DADT is only one part of the Obama administration’s larger fight on behalf of the LGBT community. Whether it is giving same-sex couples hospital visitation rights or  ensuring federal workers can afford long-term care for their partners, this administration is committed to fighting discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

I’m proud that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is part of that commitment, as we work to make inclusivity and diversity cornerstones of America’s housing policy.

Indeed, from conducting the first-ever national study of LGBT housing discrimination to instructing our staff to be vigilant about whether any LGBT-based housing discrimination complaints can be pursued through the Fair Housing Act, we’ve worked to ensure our core housing programs are open to all.

That’s why we recently announced a new rule ensuring LGBT individuals and couples can benefit from HUD programs.

Our proposed regulations will make clear that the term “family” includes LGBT individuals and couples as eligible beneficiaries of our public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs.

Unfortunately, while HUD programs are designed and administered to provide a decent home for every American, we’ve seen evidence that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and families are being arbitrarily excluded from some housing opportunities.

For instance, two years ago Michelle DeShane, a lesbian, wanted to add her partner Mitch, a transgender male, to her housing voucher.  The local housing authority denied her request because the couple did not meet its definition of “family.”

The housing authority then referred the couple to a neighboring housing authority — because, as they were apparently told, the neighboring housing authority “accepts everyone — even Martians.”

That’s not right. No one should be subject to that kind of treatment or denied access to federal housing assistance because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And so, through this proposed rule, the Obama administration is ensuring that when it comes to housing assistance funded with taxpayer dollars, they won’t be.

Specifically, it adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of definitions applicable to HUD programs. It clarifies HUD regulations to ensure that all eligible families have the opportunity to participate in HUD programs regardless of marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity.

And it prohibits inquiries regarding sexual orientation or gender identity and makes clear that gender identity and sexual orientation should not and cannot be part of any lending decision when it comes to getting an FHA-insured mortgage.

Every American family should have the opportunity to make a home for themselves free from discrimination. That is why this rule is so important — and it’s why all of us at HUD are so proud to announce it.

Shaun Donovan is the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 28.

—  John Wright

Hospital visitation rules take effect

Parkland Hospital

An executive order saying hospitals that receive federal funding must allow same-sex visitation went into effect on Tuesday.

Federal funding includes Medicare and Medicaid payments.

President Barack Obama issued the order last year after hearing about a case in which a woman wasn’t allowed to see her partner before she died.

“We applaud the Obama administration’s steps to address the discrimination affecting LGBT patients and their families,” Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said in a statement. “Now, in hospitals across the nation, LGBT people and their families will have more protections so they can be by their loved one’s side when they are sick and need them most.”

The city of Dallas has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations. Partners in Dallas should have access based on public accommodations, and no complaints against a Dallas hospital has been filed since the ordinance went into effect.

Hospitals in other cities that prevented partners from visiting loved ones used the excuse that only immediate family members could visit.

I contacted several area hospitals for comment and heard back from Parkland.

“Parkland will continue to offer an open visitation policy to all patients and their family members. Research has shown that patient care is greatly enhanced by the more time a family spends with the patient,” said Miriam Sibley, Parkland’s senior vice president and chief nursing officer.

I thought this was interesting wording. While that same wording has been used elsewhere to exclude people, at Parkland it’s meant to express acceptance of same-sex partners as family that is — and has been — welcome.

The full Lambda Legal press release is after the jump.

—  David Taffet

After losing bitter custody battle, lesbian mother Debie Hackett of Dallas takes her own life

Debie Hackett with her son, from her Facebook page

Another suicide in the LGBT community this week showed that bullying isn’t the only reason people take their own lives.

Last July, I wrote about Debie Hackett, who was fighting with her former partner for visitation rights with their son. An appeals court gave her the right to assert her parental rights and sue for visitation and the case was remanded to the lower court. When I spoke to her, she was hopeful that she would be able to see her son soon.

This month she lost her case.

Despondent, Hackett took her own life on Christmas Eve.

Could interpretation of laws to discount a same-sex relationship be the underlying cause of this needless death?

A friend of Hackett’s sent me an e-mail to let me know what had happened and asked that as a tribute I post suicide-prevention information.

Local counselor Candy Marcum said that, surprisingly, December is not necessarily the worst month for suicide. In Hackett’s case, the loss in court combined with loneliness on the holiday must have been too much for her.

Grieving friends and family can only wonder if there was something more they could have done. Marcum said the warning signs are not always apparent and counsels those grieving not to blame themselves.

Ann Haas of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention specializes in prevention in the LGBT community. In a November article, she listed a number of warning signs for suicide. To read them, go here.

—  David Taffet

Vowels custody case returned to trial court for hearing

Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal; appellate court ruled that non-bio mother has standing to sue

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Kristie Vowels
Kristie Vowels

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by a lesbian mother seeking to block her former partner from seeing their daughter. The case now returns to District Judge Teena Callahan’s court for trial.

Kristie Vowels and Tracy Scourfield were partners for four years. Together they had a daughter, with Scourfield as the birth mother. After they split up, Vowels saw the child on a regular visitation schedule for about a year, but then Scourfield cut off contact between Vowels and the child.

Vowels sued for visitation rights based on Texas law that allows someone who provided six months of care, control and possession ending within the last 90 days to file for custody.

Callahan originally ruled that Vowels did not meet legal standing to sue. Michelle May O’Neil, Vowels attorney, said Callahan gave no reason for her ruling.
Vowels appealed that ruling. The appeals court initially sided with Scourfield but later reversed itself to side with Vowels.

The Supreme Court returned the case to the appeals court, which then returned the case to district court.

O’Neil explained that non-biological parents in custody and visitation cases have to meet what is called the Troxel standard, named after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a child custody case.

“The presumption is that parents act in the best interest of their children,” O’Neil said.

Vowels said her former partner is a good mother. But whether or not Vowels gains custody could revolve on whether she and her attorneys can show any flawed decision-making on the part of her former partner.

“The flaw is that she unilaterally ripped the child from someone the child called mom,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said that the case is being cited around the state and will affect heterosexual stepparents, grandparents and other caregivers as well.
“It’s legally the same question,” O’Neil said.

Callahan is the same judge who later ruled in a same-sex divorce case last October that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally denies equal protection to same-sex partners.

O’Neil said she knows the judge will approach the case without some of the prejudices others might have, but the ruling in the divorce case won’t change her approach to the Vowels trial.

Vowels said her commitment to her daughter is unwavering.

Although she has had no access to the child for the last three years, she said her daughter has a college account that she has continued to fund.

“That’s my daughter and I’m going to do what I can to fully support her,” Vowels said.

A hearing is scheduled for September. At that time a trial date could be set and O’Neil said she will ask for a temporary visitation order.

O’Neil said that Vowels and Scourfield had talked about completing adoption papers before they split up. She said that had the adoption been completed, this would have been a very different case.

Once an adoption is completed, there is no question of parental rights. The burden of proof would have been on the biological mother to show some cause to prevent the adoptive parent from seeing the child.

“Headline to parents out there,” O’Neil said, “Get the adoption done.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 6, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens