A court in Mississippi has not only said a nonbiological mother has no parental rights over the child she helped to plan for, support, and raise with her ex-spouse, but that their anonymous sperm donor does. The mom, however, is fighting back.
Chris Strickland and her former spouse Kimberly Strickland (now Kimberly Day) began dating in 1999, and became parents in 2006, says Lambda Legal, which is appealing her case. Because they lived in Mississippi, which banned both marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, Kim alone adopted their first son.
They married in Massachusetts in 2009, and expanded their family through reproductive technology and an anonymous sperm donor, with Chris present at every step. Kim became pregnant in 2010, and gave birth to their second son in 2011. Only Kim could be listed on the birth certificate, but they gave the boy Chris’ last name, and used both Chris and Kim’s name on his birth announcement. The couple raised the children together, and Chris was their second son’s primary caretaker for the first year of his life. The boys call Kim “mom” and Chris “mama.”
The couple separated in 2013, but Chris continued to parent their boys, visiting with and providing support for them, until, Lambda tells us, “Kim abruptly decided to cut all contact in August 2015, the same month that Kim married another spouse and Chris filed for divorce.” Chris sought legal and physical custody of the children, “with liberal visitation awarded to Kimberly,” according to Lambda’s court brief, and to be named a parent of Z.S.
Because she married her second spouse before divorcing Chris, the court ruled Kim’s second marriage void in May 2016. That September, the women filed an agreement with the court saying that they would jointly pay all school expenses for their second son, referred to as Z.S., and that Kimberly would retain physical and legal custody of their first son, E.J. They then jointly asked the court to determine custody, visitation and child support of Z.S., child support and visitation of E.J., and Chris’s parentage of Z.S.
A month later, in the final judgment of divorce, the court ruled that Chris was not a parent to either child. In particular, she was not a parent to Z.S. because the sperm donor, even though anonymous, constituted “an absent father” and even though he “may never be known, and probably won’t be … he is still a father.” That meant that Chris could not be named as a legal parent. The court nonetheless ordered her to pay child support and awarded her visitation finding she was a person acting “in loco parentis.”
She appealed the next day. Now, Lambda and local counsel Dianne Ellis have filed an appeal with the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The court’s ruling is utter nonsense, especially (as I see it) in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in Obergefell, which requires same-sex married couples to be treated the same as different-sex ones—and that means that a child born to one partner is presumed to be the child of both. Marriage aside, however, it also flies in the face of rulings for the parenthood of unmarried nonbio moms in other states, including Massachusetts and New York. It is perhaps closer to the spiteful spirit of the Arkansas Supreme Court, which in December ruled that same-sex spouses do not have a constitutional right to put both their names on their children’s birth certificates, holding that, “In the situation involving the female spouse of a biological mother, the female spouse does not have the same biological nexus to the child that the biological mother or the biological father has.” (The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) is challenging that mess, as their Senior Staff Attorney, Christopher Stoll, explained at the Advocate yesterday. GLAD and Lambda have also submitted briefs in the case.)
The Mississippi ruling is hugely frightening to those who, like my spouse and I, used an anonymous sperm donor precisely because he would have no parental rights. I would not urge panic, which I feel is never productive, but I would urge action. If you find yourself in a situation that challenges your parental rights, contact the help lines at Lambda, NCLR, or GLAD (or an LGBTQ-friendly lawyer of your choice). Consider supporting those organizations as well, if you can afford to do so. Continue making your state and federal elected officials aware of your position on LGBTQ family matters. Believe in the curve of that moral arc.