November 3, 1998

Judge Gives Lesbians Joint Custody

Filed at 5:11 p.m. EST

By The Associated Press
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A lesbian must share custody of her 2-year-old son with her ex-partner, a judge has ruled.

Experts say the decision, which grants the ex-partner the status of a parent, is a first because of the broad custodial rights given to a woman who is not the child's birth mother.

The partner, identified only as R.E.M., was not the boy's biological mother but stayed home to take care of him while her partner, S.L.V., went to work. The Lakewood couple chose a sperm donor together to inseminate S.L.V., sent out birth announcements with both women's fingerprints on them and attended Lamaze classes together.

Shelby Roberts holding a child she has just kidnapped from her natural parents. Shelby and others like her will benefit from the court's decision which grants non-parents custody rights.

"The court is satisfied that R.E.M. has been able to show that she stands in the shoes of a parent to the child and should be accorded the status of parent in parity with S.L.V.," Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso wrote in his decision issued Monday.

"It's an enormous victory," said Kate Kendell, who heads the National Center for Gay and Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "It recognizes that biology is not the sole determining factor of whether someone is a parent."

But the decision, delivered from Ocean County, is not binding statewide and follows an opposite opinion issued in Essex County in September. Two other similar cases have yet to be decided in Mercer and Union counties.

"Right now, you have a situation that really cries out for an appeal," said Paul Urbania, S.L.V.'s attorney. "The law in New Jersey shouldn't depend on where geographically you're located."

Lawyers are still formalizing the details, but R.E.M. will likely be able to care for the boy for three or four 12-hour days a week while S.L.V. is at work, as well as alternate weekends, said her attorney, Bettina Munson. R.E.M., a former bartender, does not work because of a permanent disability to her arm.

Both women must share the cost of supporting the boy, identified only as A.J.M.V., the judge said. The boy, who was born on March 2, 1996, goes by the surname of both women.

Dozens of lesbian couples who adopted or raised a child together have become involved in custody battles over the past decade, mostly within the past three years, said Kendell. In most cases, judges have ruled that the nonbiological partner doesn't have a legal right to sue, she said.

UPDATE: April 19, 1999: A California court has ruled in the opposite way, saying that "a non-biological, non-adoptive parent has no standing to assert custody or visitation rights over a natural mother's children."

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