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NY Court Backs Lesbian’s Right to Seek Visitation

(CN) - New York's high court on Tuesday ruled that a woman who helped raise a son with her former lesbian partner can seek visitation rights as a parent, even though she's not biologically related to the child.

Debra H. and her former partner, Janice R., met in 2002 and entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003. A month before the ceremony, Janice had a son through artificial insemination.

The couple shared parenting responsibilities until they separated in 2006. Debra initially had limited visitation, but by early May 2008, Janice cut off all contact between Debra and their son.

Debra fought back in court, seeking joint legal and physical custody.

The state trial court sided with Debra, but an appellate division reversed. It explained that state law only allows biological or adoptive parents to seek custody or visitation rights, and Debra had never adopted the boy, even though she "served as a loving and caring parental figure during the first 2 ½ years of (his) life."

The New York Court of Appeals granted Debra Sunday visitation and ruled that because she's considered a parent under Vermont law, she should be treated as a parent under New York law.

"This is an important decision for families who have civil unions and allows greater protection for them," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed multiple briefs on Debra's behalf.

But the court stopped short of embracing the "de facto parenting doctrine," which recognizes as parents adults who played a parental role in a child's life. Several states recognize de facto or functional parents.

The state high court cited precedent allowing an unmarried partner of a child's biological mother to become a second parent through adoption. In that case, the court explained that so-called "second-parent" adoptions allow children "to achieve a measure of permanency with both parent figures" and to avoid disruptive visitation battles.

"[W]e remain convinced that the predictability of parental identity ... benefits children and the adults in their lives," the court wrote in Tuesday's opinion. The judges said it's up to New York lawmakers to change state law.

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