On Friday, the Vermont State Supreme Court handed down a significant decision in a child custody dispute between an estranged lesbian couple. The ruling in Sinnott v. Peck is one of many recent landmark state court decisions that protect same-sex parents’ rights and preserve the bonds between parents and their children.
Between 2003 and 2010, Sarah Sinnott and Jennifer Peck were in a healthy, loving relationship. The couple shared a home, cared for one another’s elderly parents, enjoyed vacations and meals with each other, and raised two children. Before their relationship began, Jennifer adopted a 1-year-old girl, G.P., from Guatemala. As soon as she could talk, G.P. called Sarah her mother. Jennifer encouraged G.P. to call Sarah as her mother and referred to Sarah as “mom,” as well.
A year later, Sarah and Jennifer decided to adopt another child together. The couple wanted to adopt a child from Guatemala so that both children shared a common cultural background. The adoption process was not smooth. Guatemala’s adoption system was riddled with mass corruption—indeed, the United Nations documented over 3,000 irregular adoptions— prompting the Guatemalan government to pursue legislative reforms. Those anti-corruption measures, however, threatened to shut off all international adoptions.
Further complicating matters, Sarah and Jennifer soon realized the adoption agency could only place an older child with them; the couple wanted to adopt a baby. With the window for adopting a Guatemalan baby closing fast, Sarah and Jennifer decided to return to the adoption agency that Jennifer used for G.P.’s adoption. The agency did not place children with same-sex couples, so Jennifer proceeded with the adoption process alone. Consequently, Sarah stayed home in Vermont to care for G.P. while Jennifer traveled twice to Guatemala to visit the child, M.P., whom the agency was attempting to place with Jennifer. All three members of the family went to Guatemala to visit with M.P. before M.P. was brought to Vermont. At the time of adoption, M.P. was 6 months old.
Once M.P. was in Vermont, Sarah and Jennifer cared for her together. Sarah took maternity leave to serve as the primary caretaker of M.P. once she was adopted. As she did with G.P., Jennifer regularly referred to Sarah as M.P.’s mother to their family and friends. Sarah and Jennifer jointly made medical decisions on M.P.’s behalf. Sarah saw to both children’s everyday needs because her work schedule permitted more flexibility than Jennifer’s.
Sarah and Jennifer planned to get a civil union and formalize a joint adoption process. Life got in the way, and it never came to be. One of Jennifer’s parents passed away. Sarah became ill with Lyme disease. When their relationship ended in 2010, they created a shared custody agreement and evenly divided time with the children between them. They shared financial responsibilities for the children. The children’s school was notified that Jennifer and Sarah shared custody and the two women went to family counseling to ensure a healthy, shared schedule.
That worked for three years until, according to Sarah, Jennifer started to throw a wrench into the arrangement. Sarah alleges Jennifer told the school to end all contact with Sarah about the children and refused to let Sarah see the children. Despite the interruptions in visitation, Sarah maintained what regular contact she could with the kids through emails, text messages, and phone calls. However, Sarah said that M.P. warned her Jennifer planned to call the police if the email communication continued.
In August 2015, Sarah filed a petition for parental rights as a de-facto parent. The judge denied her request—despite the fact that Sarah had cared for the children since they were infants, provided for their everyday needs, and formed strong emotional bonds with the girls. Because neither the Vermont Legislature nor Vermont courts ever recognized the rights of a person to secure parental rights over a child to whom that person had no biological relationship or raised in a marital household, the judge ruled Sarah had no standing to assert parental rights over the children under Vermont law. With the assistance of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Sarah and her attorney appealed to the state’s highest court.
The Vermont Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling, allowing Sarah to petition for rights over the two children. Following the lead of highest state courts in New York and Massachusetts, the court explained that “limiting parental status to individuals who are biologically linked to the child, have legally adopted, or are married or joined in civil union with the child’s legal parent at birth” could tear families apart even when two people agree ex-ante to raise a child together, the child forms a parental bond with both parents, and when the child and the outside world always believed both individuals to be the child’s parents. Instead of solely focusing on the adults’ legal relationship or their biological connection to the child, courts can examine the adults’ intentions to raise a child together and the relationship between the adults and the child.
To ignore the realities of how modern families form in favor of narrow interpretation of what makes a family would only serve to harm children. Vermont’s justices acknowledged that rigid legal rules, which separate fit parental figures from their children, could have traumatic consequences for children. The court noted: “It is hard to imagine how … an approach that allows for a complete and involuntary severing of a lifelong parent-child relationship could possibly promote children’s welfare. In many cases, the consequences of such a rule would be nothing short of tragic.”
This ruling is an important move forward for families with children whose parents are unmarried or with whom they have no biological connection. It affirms and extends the dignity jurisprudence of Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized the loving families that same-sex couples create, often with children. The Vermont Supreme Court’s decision acknowledges the reality that modern families are not cookie cutter versions of one another. The court understood that families have evolved, and judges must fill in the gaps when the law hasn’t yet caught up to the best interests of children.