House bill expands what it means to be a parent

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The House approved a bill on Wednesday that will provide children in non-traditional families in Vermont greater certainty as to who their parents legally are.

The bill, H.562, expands the legal definition of what it means to be a parent in Vermont to include parentage through birth, adoption, voluntary acknowledgement, "de facto" parentage, assisted reproduction and gestational carrier agreements. It had passed both the House and the Senate earlier in the session, but required a second round of voting in the House to consider amendments added in the Senate.

"The bill puts in place a lot of things that have been needed through the years due to the changing nature of families in Vermont and how families are formed," said one of its supporters, Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, in an interview.

"It's been a need that the Supreme Court has been asking for periodically due to cases that come before them and the probate courts, and they've been complicated cases to sort out because of how these families were formed," Nitka said.

One such case, which ended before the state's high court, involved granting custody in a civil union case. The decision facing the court was whether to grant sole custody, to Lisa Jenkins, of a daughter she had co-parented but had not given birth to.

"We face the problem here of a family with a child created using artificial insemination, and the Legislature has not dealt directly with new reproductive technologies and the families that result from these technologies," wrote Justice John Dooley in the 2006 decision.

Under existing law, if a man and woman were married and had a child together, both parents would be considered the child's legal parents. If an unmarried man and woman had a child, the mother would be considered the parent, while the man would be considered the father only if both parties acknowledged his parentage in writing. But the law had few provisions for other, nontraditional arrangements.

To address that, the Vermont Legislature approved Act 31, in 2017, which called for the formation of a Parentage Study Committee, to come up with recommendations for modernizing Vermont's parentage laws.

The committee noted in its report to the Legislature that the state's limited presumed parentage laws were enacted "merely to allow for the speedy recovery of child support - not to govern the rights of parentage for children born through alternative reproduction technologies or to same-sex partners."

The new bill now says an individual will be "presumed to be a parent of a child" if the child were born within 300 days of the dissolution of the individual's marriage or if he or she had reared a child for the first two years of the child's life, and had been recognized as a parent by the child's other parent.

The 61-page bill also formalizes "de facto" parentage, which would allow a court to grant parentage rights to individuals who can show proof of being involved in rearing a child, even though the child is neither biologically nor legally related.

The sections of the bill addressing presumed and de facto parentage were amended by the Senate judiciary committee to account for the possibility of coercion.

Nitka said the bill was amended at the request of Vermont Legal Aid. The conference committee also added a section allowing court access to the classified Child Protection Registry, if needed in the process of determining parentage.

The bill also codifies gestational carrier agreements, saying that "the prospective gestational carrier and that person's spouse have no rights and duties as the parents of a child conceived through assisted reproduction." The bill grants parentage rights to individuals who have signed assisted reproduction agreements "with the intent to parent the child."

Keith Goslant, a liaison with the LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont and a supporter of the bill, said H. 562 "addresses the difficulties that have been encountered by LGBTQ Vermonters when attempting to establish, or relinquish, parental rights and recognition."


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