A bill to allow children more than two legal parents passed today in the California Assembly. It has already passed in the state’s Senate and now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown.
It may sound like validation of the polyamorous lifestyle, but the sponsor says it’s nothing of the kind. “This is not about forming alternative families,” California State Sen. Mark Leno told me when I interviewed him for a KQED.org blog post. “This is not about polygamy.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview:
Leno: What this bill does, it allows the court, when it is required to protect the best interest of the child, the court then has the power to recognize… that a child has more than two parents.
Me: When would that be in a child’s best interest?
Leno: You can imagine a variety of different situations. A mother gives birth to a child and subsequently is married to a second husband who then becomes the legal father of the child. In many cases the child’s biological, noncustodial father may still very well be present in that child’s life. If something happens to the mother, a serious illness or accident and she is no longer able to take care of the child, and something similar happens to the custodial father, or possibly he is taken into custody for some reason, that child is at good risk of being placed in our foster care system. This bill will give the authority to the court to recognize that in some, and it’s probably a few circumstances, there is indeed a third parent to identify and recognize as such. You could have a same-sex couple, two women raising a child, having a child, and there is a biological noncustodial father.
Me: So this would only be used in an emergency?
Leno: Of course we don’t need the laws, we don’t need the courts, when everything is going swimmingly in our lives. It’s when things go south and are in trouble that we need the help of the family court and the law. So in those rare circumstances we think that a court should be able to use its best judgment again and specifically and only when using that best judgment is required to protect the best interest of the child. So this bill really recognizes that first and foremost is the importance of the child.
Me: Couldn’t this lead to conflict with federal law and with existing state statutes about determining a child’s parents?
Leno: In fact where this has happened, Pennsylvania, Maine, the district of Columbia these kinds of things have not happened… no one has objected from the administration…
I have even seen quotes in the newspaper that Rush Limbaugh says he’s not certain that this bill could legalize polygamy. This is not about forming alternative families. This is not about polygamy. It’s not about most of the things that the opposition is talking about. All it does is give authority to a family court. Most courts won’t use it. The bill in no way changes the current legal definition of who and who is not a legal parent in California.
Me: Decisions about parenting can be complicated with two parents. Won’t they be even more complicated with more than two?
Leno: You know I have also heard my colleagues talk about the possibility of six or eight parents and how messy this all this will be. The times when this may be used will not be when a child has too many parents, it’s when a child has too few … In the situation that has brought forth this bill two of the custodial parents, because of uncommon circumstances, were no longer able to care for the child.