The Ohio Supreme Court denied parental rights to a lesbian woman despite her care of the child for two years. Here’s one informative article about the case (HRC Backstory, 7/13/11).
Back in 2000, Michelle Hobbs and Kelly Mullen formed an intimate relationship. They lived together for three years and decided to have a child with Mullen being the one to conceive and carry the child to term.
Hobbs had a friend in Georgia, Scott Liming, whom they contacted about being a sperm donor. He agreed and, along with Mullen signed an agreement under which he would have no obligation to the child. Nevertheless, Liming was named as the child’s father on the birth certificate.
In due course, Mullen became pregnant via in vitro fertilization and the child was born. During all that time, Hobbs was present and actively supported Mullen. Once the child was born, Hobbs took a similarly active role in its care and upbringing.
That was reflected in certain documents Mullen executed.
Of particular importance to the Court were documents which Mullen signed which named Hobbs as the child”s guardian and gave Hobbs a durable power-of-attorney and a health-care power of attorney, granting her the ability to make school, health, and other decisions for the child.
But about two years after the child’s birth, Mullen and Hobbs broke up. Hobbs immediately petitioned a trial court for joint custody of the child. She was denied there, denied at the appellate level and denied once again by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Liming has moved from Georgia to Ohio to be near his child. He’s taking an active role in its care. Whether he or Mullen is paying child support, the article doesn’t say.
(Just for the record, the agreement he signed absolving him of responsibility for the child isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Had Mullen gone to court seeking a child support order, that agreement would have been 100% ineffective to prevent her from getting one. The same will be true if she ever does in the future.)
The court’s reasoning in the case echoes what many fathers have experienced in family court. I’ve complained many times about the fact that fathers’ parental “rights” are often placed squarely in the hands of mothers. That’s of course particularly true when the two aren’t married, but can happen as well in married couples.
Essentially, a few well-worded misrepresentations by the mother are usually sufficient to either deny altogether or sharply restrict a father’s exercise of his parental rights.
Simply disappearing from the man’s life as soon as she knows she’s pregnant is the easiest method. That way, he’ll assume she was no longer interested in seeing him and go about his business. Even if he finds out later about his child, he’ll find his right to custody all but non-existent. Why? Because he hasn’t taken a hands-on approach to childcare. The fact that she intentionally deprived him of any chance at doing so is routinely ignored by courts.
Of course if she wants child support at any time in the future, she need only file a petition with the court and – presto! – the money starts flowing from the stunned father. If that happens, his parental rights miraculously spring up from nowhere, again courtesy of the mother.
Other methods, such as lying about paternity work almost as well.
In the case of adoption, the state usually does the work for her. Putative father registries and other laws designed specifically to facilitate denial of fathers’ rights require little or no effort on the mother’s part.
So it’s interesting that, in Michelle Hobbs’s case, the Ohio court placed particular emphasis on the fact that the child’s mother, Kelly Mullen, retained the right to revoke those powers of attorney at any time. She also refused to enter into a shared custody arrangement that’s permitted by Ohio state law.
In short, the outcome of Hobbs’s attempt to continue as a parent to the child depended not on her actions but on Mullen’s consent. As with fathers, her rights were placed, not in her own hands but in those of another person altogether – the mother.
Try as she might, Michelle Hobbs could do nothing to improve her chances at sharing custody. It was not up to her; it was up to Mullen, and when their relationship soured, their child was left permanently without one of the only two parents he/she had ever known. Why? Because the mother said so.
No one in family court has the power that mothers have. Indeed, with one exception, nowhere else in American jurisprudence does one adult control the exercise of valuable rights held by another adult. And that exception is telling. When one adult has been adjudicated to be non compos mentis and in need of a guardian, then another adult is appointed to exercise the other’s rights and discharge his/her obligations.
The relationship of guardian and ward is the closest thing American law offers to the relationship of mother and father.
So now Michelle Hobbs knows a little bit about what it means to be a father in today’s United States. She may have paid half of the child’s expenses. She may have done all she could as the child’s parent; she may have loved it, cuddled it, changed its diapers, bathed it, fed it, sung it to sleep. The child may have smiled every time it saw her. Once it learned to, it may have toddled eagerly to Hobbs for a hug and a kiss.
But all of that means nothing in Ohio law. Let Hobbs suffer; let the child suffer. But on no account diminish the power of the mother to control who will act as its parent today, and who will tomorrow.
Thanks to Don for the heads-up.