With the stay of effect on gay marriages overturned on June 18 and flexible legislation around the definition of family enacted last Friday, California is finally living up to long-held expectations of its progressive social change. On Oct. 4, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will legalize children in California to have more than two legal parents. The new legislation, which is aimed at accommodating changing family structures in custodial and child-related financial conflicts, will allow courts to recognize three or more legal parents as a child’s guardian.
“Courts need the ability to recognize these changes so children are supported by the adults that play a central role in loving and caring for them. It is critical that judges have the ability to recognize the roles of all parents so that no child has to endure separation from one of the adults he or she has always known as a parent,” Senator Leno – original author of the legislation – told the LA Times on Oct. 4, indicating recognition that family is a set of interpersonal relationships potentially spanning greater distances than the traditionally recognized mother-father-biological-children nuclear model so prevalent in cultural and political narratives today.
The bill was apparently prompted by the case of a 2011 court decision over a difficult custody case. After a lesbian couple got into an altercation that landed one in the hospital and the other in jail, their daughter was sent to foster care instead of being taken into the care of her biological father – the court’s reasoning being that a child could only legally have two parents. The legislation itself is not completely unique – Delaware and the District of Columbia both allow “de facto” parents with the same rights and responsibilities of adoptive parents, while courts in other states have allowed a third legal parent in special cases – but it does set the precedent for the highest amount of families yet to be protected. Analysis of the politics of why it took a custody battle over a man’s access to a child to prompt this kind of protection while female survivors of rape are sometimes forced to share custody of their child with their rapist aside, the bill has far-reaching implications for the legal legitimization of non-traditional family structures.
It is perhaps unsurprising that statistics indicate that nontraditional families…comprise roughly 70% of the families that today’s youth live in. The “traditional” American family has long been constituted as the “legal, lifelong, sexually exclusive marriage between one man and one woman, with children, where the male is the primary provider and ultimate authority.” Given the fact that this particular image evokes more of the stifled, suburban 1950s vibe than it does the shifting and multi-layered family and gender dynamics present in society today today, it is perhaps unsurprising that statistics indicate that nontraditional families – same-sex couples, single parents, poly parents, adoptive parents, divorced or remarried parents, kinship networks where children are raised wholly or in part by grandparents, aunts and uncles, or other relatives, families without clearly delineated “male” and “female” parents, cohabiting couples, and so on, comprise roughly 70% of the families that today’s youth live in.
The news that the “traditional” structure might be under threat has also riled up the requisite conservative blogs and legislators concerned about the “interests” of the children. Just like the fears over the “same-sex agenda” threatening to undermine society, these claims on the disintegrating nature of our communal fabric hold little weight. Multiple accredited studies have shown that nontraditional family structures have no different effect on a child’s development in any way in comparison to heterosexual families (when controlling for external factors like socioeconomic class). In other words, this legislation will positively impact a great deal of legally underrepresented families in terms of custody, financial decision making, and emotional security, and will negatively impact… no one.
Through the new legislation, Californian officials have indicated their recognition that family is an institution that spreads far beyond the narrow legal boundaries imposed on it thus far. Children are raised in vastly varied webs of interpersonal relationships, and this new legal framework is a positive step not only towards giving marginalized and disenfranchised sections of society access to rights that largely been given to privileged groups, but also towards granting children the rights to stay with the guardians they know, love and trust – regardless of whether their family configuration fits the moral values of traditionally dominant white, upper class, Protestant society. Kudos to California for enacting equitable policies that will have a huge impact on the well being of American families. May it be a trend soon widely in action.