It’s time to rewrite R.I.’s parentage law, advocates say

The Ocean State joins Mississippi and Kentucky as the states with the oldest parentage laws. The way people form families has changed, say advocates for the first rewrite in 40 years of the way the state treats that formation.

PROVIDENCE — Supporters of legislation that would update the state’s parentage law for the first time in 40 years are hoping that this year is it.

“We are gonna get this done … We’re not going to walk out of here like we did last year,” said Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, the lead House sponsor who has worked on its passage for the last three years.

“We’re committed to seeing it pass the finish line this year,” McEntee said.

Called the Uniform Parentage Act, the legislation would replace the Uniform Law on Paternity, last updated in the 1970s. Its supporters hail it as much needed to provide a clear path to parentage for same-sex and unmarried couples and others who rely on assisted reproductive technology and surrogacy.

Advocates say it would bring the state’s parentage laws in line with the changing face of families in Rhode Island. The Ocean State joins Mississippi and Kentucky as the states with the oldest parentage laws.

On Wednesday, speaker after speaker told the House Committee on the Judiciary of the expense, anxiety and humiliation of undertaking a “second-parent” adoption for the non-birth parent. A state Department of Children, Youth and Families worker must come into their house to assess whether the non-birth parent is qualified to adopt the child. A home study must be drafted and references secured. The adopting parent must be fingerprinted.

Some Family Court judges require families to post an advertisement in the city where donated sperm came from to notify the father that his parental rights will be terminated. The couples hire lawyers, spending thousands, to help guide them through the adoption process that can begin only when the child turns six months old.

“On what planet is this in the best interests of a child?” said Dr. Sara Watson, who adopted her son Eli. “Family has nothing to do with whether the DNA matches,” she continued.

The most gripping testimony came from couples who experienced difficulty in childbirth.

Take Moira Hinderer, whose baby, June, was born at 29 weeks weighing just over two pounds.

Hinderer had to go into surgery immediately while June was rushed into the neonatal intensive care unit. Hospital staff allowed June’s other mom, Hillary, to hold her soon after birth even as she had no recognized legal right to the child who she long planned for.

“She had no legal right. She had no legal connection to Junie at that time,” Hinderer said.

She and others emphasized that they shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of others, that laws should be in place to secure their rights and those of their children.

Nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and Rhode Island Kids Count also all weighed in in support at the hearing, as did the state Department of Human Services, the National Organization for Women, and the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island.

A version passed the Senate last year with widespread support, only to get stalled in the House late in the session due to concerns raised by Family Court Chief Judge Michael Forte.

Since September, McEntee said, she has worked closely with Forte, Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney and state Health and Human Services officials to come up with a proposal. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi have also signed on as sponsors.

“We all want a bill that works. We all want a bill that actually passes,” McEntee said in a recent interview.

Patience “Polly” Crozier, a senior staff lawyer with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, expressed overall support for the bill but suggested some changes.

Crozier questioned the constitutionality of a section that extended parentage only to U.S. citizens.

Committee member Jason Knight, D-Barrington, noted that the provision might exclude graduate students and legal permanent residents in Rhode Island.

Crozier suggested other tweaks in its language that fell more in line with Vermont’s parentage law.

Judge Forte voiced his own concerns via a letter to the committee. In particular, he took issue with a section that would require a Family Court judge to grant, without review, any birth order in which a lawyer certified that all the requirements of the surrogacy agreement had been met.

“Family Court judicial officers do not rubber stamp orders regarding the welfare of children,” Forte wrote.

“I’m sure we can work it out,” McEntee said.

The Senate on Feb. 4 passed a proposal, sponsored by Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata, that was based on Vermont’s parentage law and has been forwarded to House Judiciary.

That measure has Gov. Gina Raimondo’s backing.

“At its core,” Raimondo wrote, “this bill is about equality for all our state’s families.”

kmulvane@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7417

On Twitter: @kmulvane

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