Illinois Appeals Court Denies Lesbian Mother Right to Seek Visitation
Lambda faults ruling that courts are hamstrung where legislature fails to act
(CHICAGO, December 16, 1999) — A lesbian mother faces the devastating prospect of never seeing her young daughter again because an Illinois appeals court, citing the state marriage code's silence on same-sex families, held that it could not consider her plea for visitation, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the First District of Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of the mother's efforts to seek visitation with a five-year-old girl she helped to bring into the world and raise with her former partner, ruling that she lacks standing.
In a 10-page opinion, Justice John N. Hourihane, deferring to the state legislature, wrote, "Who shall have standing to petition for visitation with a minor child is an issue of complex social significance. Such an issue demands a comprehensive legislative solution."
Lambda Staff Attorney Heather C. Sawyer said, "The court has abdicated its responsibility to look out for this child's best interest, abandoning its historic role of protecting relationships that fall outside statutory definitions."
In May, Sawyer argued on behalf of "Amanda," who sought visitation rights with her daughter "Cathy," a daughter she raised with her former partner "Helen." Pseudonyms are being used to protect the privacy of their child. Both women planned for the birth of their daughter, and during the couple's nine-year relationship, Amanda not only cared for and parented Cathy, but was also the family's sole financial support.
Following the couple's break-up, Amanda continued to support her child financially and visited with her. However, Helen unilaterally severed all contact between Amanda and their daughter after moving from Georgia, where Amanda still resides, to Illinois.
A trial court dismissed Amanda's visitation claims in 1998, saying that as a non-biological parent, she had no standing to sue. The appellate court affirmed that decision.
Sawyer added, "In the past, when the law is silent, Illinois judges have intervened in order to safeguard the welfare of children. Just three years ago, this same court acknowledged the visitation rights of an unmarried, non-biological father. Now, they've turned their backs and closed the door on a lesbian mother asking for the exact same consideration for her child."
The appeals court ignored its own 1996 precedent, Koelle v. Zwiren. In that case, the court granted visitation rights to an unmarried man who mistakenly believed he was the father of his ex-girlfriend's daughter. In its ruling Thursday, the court never explained why it did not do the same in this case.
"This decision underscores how critical it is that same-sex parents have recourse to protect our families," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. She added, "Second-parent adoptions and other legal mechanisms – while not solving all the problems that arise when courts fail to protect lesbian and gay families – must be uniformly available and affordable."
Chicago attorney Rosemary Mulryan is Lambda's co-counsel in the case. Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
Contact: Heather C. Sawyer 312-663-4413 x 22; Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)