A married high school teacher in Vermont recently learned that the troubled student she and her husband took in, and who helped with nanny duties, could be entitled to custody and visitation of her child as a ‘de facto’ parent. How did the Vermont Supreme Court just decide the issue?
Half Baked Parents
A 5-year old boy is the biological son of a Mother and Father. The Mother is a 41-year old high school teacher who was pregnant with a child. The Plaintiff (Student) was a female high-school student from an abusive household who always relied on the Mother for moral support.
When the Student turned 18, she was kicked out of her own home, was welcomed into the Mother and Father’s home, paying $100 a month for utilities and helped with chores. Two weeks after moving in, the Student left to attend college in northern Vermont and returned on the weekends.
The Student and the Father started a romantic relationship, which turned into a polyamorous sexual relationship involving the Mother: they slept in the same bed and of course, got matching tattoos.
The Mother and Student went to the Mother’s prenatal visits, she was present for the baby’s, J.F., birth, and even cut the umbilical cord. But unbeknownst to the other two, the Mother went to a divorce lawyer.
The Father later found evidence the Mother was having an affair. As retaliation, the Father and Student took the Mother’s phone, her high-heeled shoes – calling them her “whore shoes”— her makeup, and used FBI interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation on the Mother.
After the Mother filed for divorce, the Student sought custody as a de facto parent when the Mother would not allow her to see the baby.
Florida De Facto Parents
I’ve written about various custody issues involving non-biological parents before – in Florida it has typically meant grandparent visitation rights. Often times people who are not married, not adoptive parents, and not biological parents, are involved in raising a child. When relationships sour, the non-parent seeks visitation and timesharing of a child that’s not really theirs.
Florida’s rules regarding visitation and timesharing are governed by statute. And by its explicit provisions, the statute applies only to parents’ visitation rights and does not extend to nonparents.
There are a few Florida cases that have applied the law to hold that nonparents are not entitled to visitation. Because of these cases, non-parents do not have standing to even ask the court for visitation and timesharing.
The role of the de facto parent is very fragile. The Florida Supreme Court, relying on the constitutional right of privacy, has unequivocally reaffirmed adoptive or biological parents’ right to make decisions about their children’s welfare without interference by third parties.
The distinction between “adoptive or biological parents” is critical in Florida. The law is clear: those who claim parentage on some basis other than biology or legal status do not have the same rights, including the right to visitation, as the biological or legal parents.
A Chunky Monkey Decision
Back in Vermont, after extensive hearings, the family court judge refused to find the Student was a de facto parent, and the Student appealed, ending up in the Vermont Supreme Court.
The high court upheld the family court judge, who found that the Student failed to prove her role in the family was more than that of a nanny. Simply taking care of the baby when mother was at work, not on weekends, vacations, or during the evenings or overnight was not enough.
The court also rejected the Student’s argument that she was a de facto parent because she didn’t hold out J.F. as her own child. A few Facebook posts over the course of four years was not considered enough.
Finally, the court concluded that continuing the relationship was not in J.F’s best interests because of the controlling nature of the Father’s and Student’s relationship with the Mother. Getting the Mother suspended, taking away her shoes and the sleep deprivation techniques, all had a negative impact on the child – causing difficulty sleeping, constipation, and bedwetting.
Additionally, the court was concerned that the Student having report the Mother to the school and getting her suspended from her job, meant that a continuation of the Student’s relationship with the child could result in continuing control over the Mother, and that control was not in the child’s best interests.
The Vermont Supreme Court decision from Reason.com is here.