Monday, March 22, 2021

Clinic Advocates for CT Parentage Law Overhaul

Hartford Capitol

In March, Professor Douglas NeJaime and several students testified before the Joint Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly in support of the Connecticut Parentage Act.

Shannon and Megan met as children and were friends for years before they began dating in college. Now married, the two hope to start a family through assisted reproduction, which they had to lobby Shannon’s health insurance to cover.

After Shannon gives birth, they will have to undertake the additional step of a second-parent adoption in order to have Megan’s parental relationship legally protected in Connecticut and across the country. The adoption process can take several months and cost thousands of dollars.

“Heterosexual couples are able to prepare for the arrival of their baby without the burden of a complex legal gauntlet,” said Shannon. “While they’re decorating nurseries, we’re going be speaking with an attorney about how to ensure our child is protected in the event that something happens to me. It’s important for us to verify that Megan will be a legal parent in all ways, shapes, and forms.”

Anne Urowsky Professor of Law Douglas NeJaime — with the help of dozens of students — founded a clinic to advocate for the Connecticut Parentage Act (CPA), which would modernize Connecticut’s parentage laws. Advocates charge that Connecticut’s current parentage laws are outdated, discriminatory, and unconstitutional. The bill is currently before the Connecticut General Assembly, though NeJaime, who was the primary drafter of the bill, has been working to pass the CPA since 2019. Work was cut short when the pandemic delayed the last legislative session.

“The Connecticut Parentage Act solves the problems in our parentage law,” said NeJaime. “It satisfies constitutional requirements. It reflects the diversity of families in our state. It protects children who are vulnerable under current law. It brings order to an area where there is uncertainty. It updates law that is outdated and it reflects best practices.”

Read stories of families impacted by the CPA

Supporters of the CPA say the law will fill gaps in existing law and ensure equal access to legal parentage for all children, including those with unmarried, same-sex, or nonbiological parents. For example, under the CPA, Shannon and Megan would not have to go through the adoption process and instead would be able to establish Megan’s parentage by signing an acknowledgment of parentage, a simple administrative device that is currently available only to different-sex couples.

Acknowledgments would allow not only married but also unmarried same-sex couples to establish parentage for the nonbiological parent. Connecticut is currently the only state in New England that offers no protections to children with an unmarried nonbiological parent. This is particularly harmful for children of same-sex couples, since such couples necessarily include a non-genetic parent. Without a legal connection to one of their parents, these children are at risk, since only legal parents can make medical decisions for their children or provide them with health insurance and other benefits.

“Parents who do not have a legally recognized relationship with their children may lack standing to file for custody or visitation and could be separated from those children at any time,” said Carolina Eguchi Yamamoto ’21, a student in the clinic.

The CPA would not only allow unmarried LGBTQ parents to complete an acknowledgement of parentage, but would also provide other paths to parentage that do not depend on a parent’s gender, marital status, or biological connection.

“As a member of the LGBTQ community who someday plans to build a family, the CPA clinic’s work is particularly meaningful to me,” said Michael Loedel ’23. “I’m incredibly excited to join this effort to ensure that LGBTQ families in Connecticut have the same parentage rights as everyone else.”

The CPA would also secure the legal relationship between intended parents and children born through assisted reproduction, and establish protections for all involved in the surrogacy process, including intended parents and the person acting as the surrogate.

Students in the clinic have participated in all facets of the CPA effort, assisting with drafting the language of the bill, coordinating the coalition supporting the bill, and advocating for the bill in the General Assembly. The effort to pass the CPA is led by the WE CARE Coalition, a group of Connecticut families, legal advocates, and community organizations. NeJaime and the clinic students are spearheading the initiative along with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), New England’s leading LGBTQ legal organization.

“Our work has spanned everything from outreach to faith leaders who support LGBTQ families to legislative drafting to ensure the legal fine print matches the goals of families and meshes with the existing legal system,” said Will Poff-Webster ’22, a student in the clinic.

Students have interacted with various stakeholders, including legislators, family members impacted by the current gaps in the law, advocacy groups, and members of the Connecticut Bar Association. Clinic students have also worked to publicize the bill to affected families and the media, and helped draft testimony and other legislative advocacy materials.

In March, NeJaime and several students testified before the Joint Judiciary Committee of the General Assembly. Over 60 organizations and individuals submitted written testimony in support of the bill. NeJaime testified that current laws are due for an overhaul.

“Connecticut statutes regulating the marital presumption of parentage as well as assisted reproduction include only husband and wife,” he said. “Virtually all federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have found statutes like ours unconstitutional.”

Many children in the state are being raised by a nonbiological parent, he added. “But Connecticut offers no protection to the child of an unmarried nonbiological parent, even though the state is obligated by law to recognize LGBTQ parents and to provide equal treatment to nonmarital children.”

The law students involved say that this year, the time has come for the legislation to pass the General Assembly and be signed into law.

“It has been the highlight of my law school career to work with Connecticut families who have struggled with the state’s discriminatory laws,” said Cara Newlon ’21. “After two years of working to get this law passed, I strongly believe that this year is the year that we will make Connecticut’s law work for all families.”

For some parents, the pandemic has brought Connecticut’s current laws to the front of their minds. “COVID heightened an existing fear for me: what would happen to our children if something happened to me,” said Stephanie Ocasio-Gonzalez, a mother of two who testified at the March hearing.

Stories like those heard during the committee hearing demonstrate just how necessary an update to Connecticut’s parentage laws is, the bill’s supporters said. The next step will be for the Joint Judiciary Committee to vote on the bill and send it on to the state House and Senate. 

“We need the Connecticut Parentage Act because our family law should reflect our families as they are today,” said Poff-Webster. “So many families, especially in the LGBTQ community, show that the most important part of parentage isn’t about blood or biology — it’s about care and personal connection. It’s time that the state catches up to what many kids and parents already know.”