NEW YORK — A New York state judge has delivered an unprecedented ruling that says close friends who live in separate households can legally adopt children together.
“KAL and LEL are two loving adults who are both functioning as G.’s parents and have a relationship with each other built on a solid, decade-plus friendship,” stated Surrogate Rita Mella in her Dec. 27, 2013, ruling from Manhattan surrogate court.
Surrogate Mella’s ruling, “The Matter of G.,” involves two friends, living in separate households, who decided to adopt a child from Ethiopia together in 2011. According to court papers, the woman, identified as KAL, first wanted to conceive a child via artificial insemination. She then told her wish for a child to her male friend, identified as LEL, who then offered to donate his own sperm. Both KAL and LEL have been friends since 2000, and LEL’s offer meant KAL would not have to use an anonymous sperm donor. After failed attempts at in vitro fertilization, KAL and LEL decided to adopt “G.,” a 2-year-old child from Ethiopia.
Mella noted that while KAL is the legal adoptive mother, LEL has been the functional father, in their co-parenting relationship. The toddler, known as “G.” travels between KAL’s home, where she lives with her roommate, and LEL’s home, where he lives with his domestic partner. However, LEL petitioned the court to be toddler G.’s legal co-parent, in order to make decisions on her behalf, provide her access to more benefits, and make her his legal beneficiary in the event of LEL’s death. Mella approved LEL’s uncontested request, saying that the evidence showed it was in the “best interests” of the child. [A PDF copy of the ruling is available here.]
“It’s madness,” Ed Mechmann, director of the family life office for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register. “It just shows how far our society has gone once we move away from marriage as the norm, and we leave these things up to judges. It really just shows there is no limit.”
While Mella’s ruling may be unprecedented, the judge outlines the legal basis for how she came to the conclusion that close friends could adopt under New York state law. Mella noted that the state’s domestic relations law was amended in 2010 to allow “any two unmarried adult intimate partners together” the ability to adopt, alongside single persons and married couples..
But Mella said it was “difficult to identify a definitive plain meaning of [the term] ‘intimate partners,’” since the New York Legislature did not bother to define the term.
She added, “It is a relatively new phrase, and one of many imprecise terms used to describe relationships along a continuum between ‘acquaintance’ or ‘friend’ and ‘sexual partner’ or ‘spouse.’”
New Interpretation of ‘Intimate’
Mella, however, cited the legislative history of the 2010 amendment, which in her opinion supports her interpretation of “intimate partners” to include “very close, loving friends, who have an intimate connection, which includes planning for and raising a child together.”
“Indeed, the experience of jointly and intentionally parenting a child is itself of the most intimate nature,” she stated.
Citing the state’s “strong policy of assuring that as many children as possible are adopted,” Mella said, “there is no rationale for excluding unmarried individuals who are committed to raising a child together with another unmarried person from having standing to adopt.”
New York’s domestic relations law was amended in 2010, a year before the legislature voted to redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex couples.
Mechmann said he found it “hard to imagine that in anyone’s mind, that phrase [unmarried adult intimate partners together] would have meant two people who don’t even live together, who are in relationships with other people, and just happen to have something that they consider to be a friendship.”
But Mechmann said he believed Judge Mella’s ruling was “just the latest in a long series of moves away from marriage as the norm for society and for children.
“It’s very disturbing because adoption decisions should be what’s in the best interests for the child,” he said. “This seems to be almost satisfying two people’s wish lists, and the child is almost like an afterthought.”
Mella herself noted that the traditional idea of the family, a married mother and father jointly raising children, “has not represented the norm for large sections of the population in a long time.”
“Today nearly one-third of children in the United States do not live in a household with their two parents,” she said, noting that the state recognizes children raised in multiple households as a result of divorce, assisted reproductive technologies, same-sex co-parents, single parents, foster families, grandparents, aunts uncles and other family members engaged in raising children.
Mella also added that had KAL conceived a child with her friend LEL’s sperm — as the two friends originally intended — the state would have recognized both KAL and LEL as the legal parents.
“As society acknowledges an ever-expanding cadre of family compositions, adoption law … should not lag behind,” she said, citing the directives set down by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in previous cases.
Redefining Parenthood’s Slippery Slope
Anne Hendershott, a Catholic sociologist at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said the decision “shouldn’t be surprising,” because society has progressively redefined marriage away from being a lifelong, permanent union between a man and a woman for the sake of rearing children.
“I think this is going to get worse and worse: why not three parents, or four parents? Anybody can be parents now,” she said.
“Marriage has always been oriented to the bearing and rearing of children,” she said. “But we opened this door when we allowed single people to adopt children.” Hendershott added that while she has known good single people who chose to adopt, “This is just the same door that more people are walking through.”
She noted that a single adoption puts an adopted child with one parent from the get-go, but the parenting arrangement for “G.” means she is “already torn” between two homes.
“Everybody needs stability, and children need stability more than anyone else to know who they are,” Hendershott said. “Part of who they are comes from where they live, who’s important to them, who cares about them, who is the constant in their life. So if they are spending time bouncing around, they have a hard time knowing who they are.”
Mechmann said the archdiocese will be looking out for how state agencies may change in response to this decision, and any impact it may have on Catholic Charities adoptions.
“Whenever you see these changes in the way the law is interpreted you always worry that what is permissible today might become mandatory tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll keep a close eye on this.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.