Vermont's Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Sarah Sinnott whose former partner sought to block her relationship with the daughter they jointly brought into their family through adoption. This decision is an important step forward for many families including those where parents are unmarried, where one does not have a genetic tie to a child, or, as in this case, where one parent formally does an adoption and the other does not.
"This decision is child-centered, as the law should be," said Jennifer L. Levi of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. "It protects parent-child relationships based on the loving bonds that create them, not based on legal formalities. The reality is that children in Vermont, as elsewhere, are being raised in many different types of families. All children need and deserve protection, security and stability. This decision recognizes that, as more and more courts across the country are beginning to do. It is a huge step forward in terms of protecting children throughout Vermont."
Sarah and her former partner were in a committed partnership for 7 years. During that time, the couple jointly planned for, adopted, and raised their daughter. For legal and logistical reasons, Sarah's former partner was the sole adoptive parent. After they split up, the couple continued to jointly parent for 3 years before Sarah's former partner stopped allowing their daughter to see and be cared for by Sarah.
Sarah filed a Petition to Establish Parentage with the Vermont Superior Court, Family Division. The court declined to accept her filing, holding that Vermont law did not recognize parentage other than by married parents or those with a genetic relationship to their child.
With co-counsel Sarah Star, GLAD argued at Vermont's highest court that Sarah meets the legal definition of a parent and is entitled to seek custody under Vermont's Parentage Act. The Court agreed, saying, in part:
It is hard to imagine how… an approach that allows for a complete and involuntary severing of a lifelong parent-child relationship could possibly promote children's welfare. In many cases, the consequences of such a rule would be nothing short of tragic.
Other state high courts have issued similar rulings in recent years, including recently the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court with its 2016 Partanen v. Gallagher ruling, also argued by GLAD. The Vermont Court made note of this trend in today's decision, adding that:
Adopting this approach puts Vermont in line with the modern trend, and with all of our fellow New England states that have recognized some limited circumstances in which an intended parent may be legally recognized even in the absence of biological or marital connection.
"With today's ruling," added Levi, "the Vermont Supreme Court recognized that all children need and deserve to have their relationship with a parent protected."
Through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation.