We have unfinished business in Massachusetts.
Twenty years ago, our state was the first in the nation to marry same-sex couples. But we have fallen behind much of the country when it comes to legally recognizing families that don’t fit old stereotypes.
Too often, LGBTQ people still must fight to be recognized as full parents of children they have raised since conception. Other parents must struggle, too — for instance, those who, because of assisted reproduction, have no biological relationship to their children.
Karen Partanen spent years and all of her retirement savings trying to be recognized as her children’s parent after she and her partner of 12 years broke up. They were never married, and only her partner, the birth mother, was on the birth certificate.
After her former partner refused her consistent time to parent the children, Partanen discovered that, because they were unmarried and her name wasn’t on the birth certificate, she had no legal rights to the children. It took three years, multiple judges, and expert attorneys, but eventually, the SJC declared Partanen had full parental rights in a landmark 2016 ruling.
“I lost my job ... trying to prove I was a parent,” because it took up so much of her time, Partanen said. “It was crazy.”
She and others are fighting to enshrine rights for nonbiological parents like her in state legislation, to make sure they can continue to parent the children they love without a judge’s intervention. Without full legal status, parents like her have less secure custody rights and less power to make medical and educational decisions for their children. They’re less able to access child support and other government assistance that biological parents get automatically.
Here, more than in any other state, families have outpaced the law: In addition to being a pioneer when it comes to same-sex marriage, Massachusetts has the highest rate of births from assisted reproduction, including sperm donation and surrogacy.
“What we need is a system that treats all children and families equally, but the current system creates tremendous harm,” said Polly Crozier, an attorney at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders who represented Partanen and other clients seeking parental rights.
Crozier has dealt with state workers, judges, and health professionals who act as if the 2016 decision had never happened.
One of her clients was Kamiel Thompson whose partner gave birth to their son while visiting North Carolina in 2016, and who could not get on the child’s birth certificate there because the couple were not married when the boy was born. When the couple hit turbulence a couple of years later back in Massachusetts, DCF removed the boy. Because Thompson was not on his birth certificate, DCF refused to allow her to be a party in his case, or even attend his hearing. And she was not allowed to visit freely with him for three months after he was taken away. Crozier worked to get Thompson a lawyer, argued with the court and DCF that she deserved the same rights as the boy’s birth parent, and eventually got her added to his birth certificate.
“I had never left his side since the day he was born,” said Thompson, who has since been reunited with her son. “It doesn’t take long for a 2-year-old to forget.”
Who would want this for any child?
Darmany Jimenez, 18, has been raised mostly by his mother’s friend Caeli Bourbeau because his mother struggles with mental illness. If not for Bourbeau, Jimenez and his brother might have gone into foster care. But though she went to court to be designated a de facto parent in 2014, Bourbeau still doesn’t have rights equal to the boys’ birth mother.
“Since I was born, she has always been my rock,” said Jimenez, a senior at Boston Preparatory Charter School in Hyde Park. “I want Caeli to have that legal recognition as my parent, for my brother and for all those other families to be able to come out and say … ‘This is our family and we are proud of it.’”
Massachusetts is the only state in New England that hasn’t brought its parentage laws up to date. Bills that would finally provide parents like Partanen, Thompson, and Bourbeau with the rights they and their kids need are again before legislators and enjoy strong bipartisan support.
This is long overdue. This year’s 20th anniversary of this state’s first nation-leading same-sex marriages is the perfect time to finally get it done.