High-Profile Ohio Lesbian Custody Battle Again Highlights Injustices Faced by Noncustodial Parents

We’ve often discussed the issue of lesbian “social mothers’–women who agreed to employ a sperm donor so that they could have children with their lesbian partners, who are the biological mothers. Disputes between lesbian biological mothers and social mothers are now becoming routine. When the relationship goes sour, often the lesbian biological mom drives her ex out of their child’s life, exactly as heterosexual mothers often do to their ex-husbands.

The most high-profile of the cases is the Lisa Miller-Janet Jenkins custody battle, which Ned Holstein, MD and I highlighted in our column With Gay Marriage Comes Gay Divorce: The Rise of Lesbian Custody Battles. Because of Miller’s relentless refusal to allow Jenkins to co-parent the daughter they had together, the Vermont court eventually ordered Miller to surrender the child to Jenkins. Rather than do so, Miller abducted the child and disappeared.

Jenkins discussed the case on ABC a few weeks ago and did a very creditable job of describing how noncustodial parents–male or female, straight or gay–are mistreated. To watch, click here. To listen to Holstein discuss the case on the Mike McConnell Show, click here.

The newest case getting media attention is in Ohio, pitting lesbian biological mom (Kelly Mullen) and sperm donor (Scott Liming) against social mom Michele Hobbs. The child, 4-year-old Lucy Mullen, has resided with Kelly since the breakup of the Mullen/Hobbs relationship.

Liming was originally intended to be simply a sperm donor. However, after the girl’s birth, to his credit, he fell for the little girl and decided he wanted to have an active role in the child’s life. The girl spends every Monday with Liming. Hobbs hasn’t been allowed to see the girl since Christmas.

I have been approached by both sides (Mullen/Liming and Hobbs) in the case, have spoken at length with Liming and Hobbs, and have read some of the case’s documentation. I’ve concluded that Hobbs is correct, for various reasons, including:

1) It is clear from the evidence, and courts have concluded, that 4-year-old Lucy Mullen and Michele Hobbs are closely bonded in a parent/child-type relationship.

2) It is clear from the evidence, and courts have concluded, that Mullen and Hobbs had this child with every intention that they would raise her together.

3) There is nothing in the record which indicates that Hobbs is anything but a fit parent. I listened to Liming’s attempts to malign her and suffice it to say that there’s nothing there, and the vilification sounds exactly like what divorcing mothers and their allies often do to perfectly decent fathers.

4) Like most noncustodial fathers, Hobbs doesn’t seek sole custody nor does she seek to exclude Mullen from their daughter’s life. She simply wants shared custody, but Mullen/Liming have fought a long, expensive legal battle to prevent it.

5) While Mullen/Liming vilify Hobbs, Hobbs freely acknowledges that Liming is a good father and says she wants to preserve his current role in the girl’s life.

6) Liming is now denying that he was a sperm donor, instead asserting that he is a real parent. Yet on July 16, 2004, at the outset, Liming signed a standard sperm donor agreement which read in part:

“Each party acknowledges and agrees that the relinquishment of all rights, as stated above, is final and irrevocable. DONOR further understands that his waiver shall prohibit and action for custody, guardianship, or visitation in any future situation, including in the event of the RECEIPIENT’s death or disability, unless any child is no longer in the custody of DONOR or DONOR’s partner, Michele Hobbs…”

Liming’s sperm donor agreement can be found here.

Mullen (and perhaps Liming) are also trying to alienate Hobbs from her daughter. Little Lucy calls Mullen “mommy” and Michele “momma,” but Mullen tries to convince her to call Hobbs by her first name instead of “momma.” This is very similar to the way some custodial mothers try to convince their children to call their new boyfriends/husbands “dad” and call their exes by their first names.

In one heart-wrenching conversation which I have the recording of, confused little Lucy struggles to explain this to Hobbs, saying, “Mommy says don’t call momma ‘momma’…mommy says ‘momma’s not momma, momma’s Michele’ but I say ‘no mommy, she’s momma.'”

Of another incident, Hobbs explains:

Once when I picked Lucy up she waited until we were on our way, then she dug deep in her pockets and pulled the toys out and told me she had a present for me, a toy reindeer. It’s heartbreaking to know that a child that young knows that she must hide her thoughts and feelings for one parent from the other parent.

At one point Hobbs was prevented from seeing her daughter for 7 months. According to Hobbs, she was warned by a child psychiatrist that Lucy might not even remember her. Hobbs says, “It was exactly the opposite. Lucy ran up and hugged me and just started talking and chatting like we had never been apart. She didn’t miss a beat.”

Liming was polite but disappointed at the end of his long conversation with me—he evidently felt that because we’re called “Fathers & Families”, we would side with him in this case. But Fathers & Families’ is a family court reform organization whose primary goal is to preserve the loving bonds children share with their parents, regardless of gender. It is not always the mother who is trying to drive the other parent out, and this is one more example, albeit an unconventional one.

I’ve offered Scott the opportunity to give his perspective in writing on our websites, and I will reiterate that offer here. I would also reiterate something else I told Scott—in a couple years, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to get a letter from him telling me that Mullen has done to him what Mullen and Liming are currently doing to Hobbs. In fact, I suspect that in the long run, his chances of staying in Lucy’s life are better if Hobbs wins than if Mullen does.

From the WCPO 9 TV report Same-Sex Custody Dispute Could Rewrite Ohio Laws (2/18/10):

When Michele Hobbs looks at pictures of 4-year-old Lucy Mullen, she gets very emotional.

“Lucy loves me. I love Lucy,” the Mount Auburn woman said Wednesday. “She”s hurting right now. I”m hurting right now.”

The girl is the biological child of Kelly Mullen, who was Hobbs’ partner for seven and a half years.

Mullen and Hobbs separated in July, 2007, sparking a bitter custody battle.

Hobbs is fighting for shared custody and visitation rights. The courts say Mullen has sole custody of her daughter. She refused further comment when contacted by phone on Wednesday.

“I have no legal rights to see my daughter because I”m not the biological parent,” Hobbs said as she flipped through picture after picture of the blond-haired child. “Nonetheless, I am Lucy”s mom and she knows me as mama.”

How the case is ultimately decided could have wide-ranging implications for fathers, mothers, step-parents, grandparents or same-sex partners.

Lisa Meeks, Hobbs” attorney, said their case is based on what they believe was an oral argument between Mullen and Hobbs.

“She gave her carte blanche decision making authority over the child,” Meeks said of Mullen. “The cards – the letters – the photos that say you”re Lucy”s mama. I think it”s beyond doubt that an agreement was in place.”

Hobbs pointed out that her name is on Lucy”s ceremonial birth certificate, that she”s listed as a co-parent in Mullen”s will, power-of-attorney and durable power-of-attorney for medical care.

“We were known as a family to our church, to our friends and to our neighbors,” Hobbs said.

On Dec. 22, 2007, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Magistrate D. Kelley wrote, “It is clear that under Ohio law Ms. Hobbs cannot be considered one of Lucy”s legal parents.” Those titles, he said, belong to Kelly Mullen and Scott Liming, the biological father who was involved in artificial insemination.

However, Magistrate Kelley added that “Ms. Mullen did relinquish partial custody to Ms. Hobbs and cannot now completely cut her out of Lucy”s life. It is in the best interest to maintain ties with Ms. Hobbs.”

He put a temporary visitation order in place.

In May of 2008, Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Thomas Lipps reversed both rulings, denying Hobbs shared custody of Lucy and terminating the interim visitation order. Judge Lipps said that every document Kelly Mullen signed was revocable by her and that she had legal rights of custody and care over the child.

Judge Lipps said if Mullen and Hobbs had wanted to memorialize their commitment and child care agreements, they should have executed a written co-parenting agreement. The fact that Mullen consistently refused to enter into such an agreement was the most important factor in the case, according to Judge Lipps.

Within two weeks, Judge Lipps reconsidered his ruling and reinstated the interim visitation schedule of six consecutive hours each week where Hobbs could be with Lucy.

Hobbs appealed to the Cincinnati-based First District Court of Appeals, which upheld Judge Lipps’ denial of shared custody and overturned his visitation order.

Judge Sylvia Hendon wrote, “We do not doubt that Hobbs bonded with Lucy. The record is replete with evidence that Hobbs loves this little girl. But the trial court did not error. Hobbs has no legal right to share in Lucy”s custody.”

Meeks has already appealed that ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court…Hobbs vows she will never stop trying to win the case.

“I do believe as sure as the hands are at the ends of my arms they will be around my daughter again,” she stated.

I discussed the Mullen-Hobbs lesbian custody battle on the Bill Cunningham Show on 700 WLW in Cincinnati–to listen to the audio, click here.

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