The ancient African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” originates from a Nigerian proverb, conveying the view that it takes a communal group to rear a well-adjusted child who contributes to the welfare of the community. Historically, this notion included the child’s parents, older siblings, and grandparents—as well as friends and neighbors.
Fast forward to 2015, and a new twist on this ancient belief is swiftly emerging alongside the ever-evolving definition of what constitutes a “family.” The new twist is known as “tri-parenting,” and courts—including New Jersey’s Ocean County Superior Court—are awarding custodial and placement rights to not just the child’s biological parents, but also to a third adult who has a close bond with the child. In the New Jersey case, the third person was referred to as a “psychological parent,” highlighting the developed relationship between the child and this third person.
In theory, the concept of a child having three parents has an appeal—especially in light of the many American parents who are so busy working multiple jobs just to support their family that they have little time to spend with their children. However, tricky legal issues are likely to emerge as a result of this arrangement.
What is tri-parenting?
As the name suggests, tri-parenting occurs when three people are granted equal legal rights to a child in terms of physical custody (where the child lives), legal custody, and—if necessary—visitation. Of course, custody and visitation rights are historically reserved for the child’s biological or adoptive parents, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that non-parent third parties (grandparents, for example) could begin petitioning the court for visitation rights.
Commonly, tri-parenting results from an agreement between the three parties prior to the child’s conception. In the New Jersey case mentioned above, the arrangement grew out of a close-knit friendship between a same-sex male couple and their female friend, who would also become the child’s biological mother. Prior to engaging in the artificial conception process (one of the men in the couple would be the biological father), the couple and their friend agreed to raise the child together as a unit, creating duplicate nurseries in their respective homes—and even having two baby showers.
It wasn’t long, however, before the arrangement become complicated. The child’s biological mother decided to get married and relocate—with the child—to California, where her fiancé lived. Naturally, the other two parents objected, and the three found themselves before the New Jersey family court seeking a legally enforceable arrangement.
After a 19-day trial, and a 97-page order, it was determined that all three individuals would enjoy equal rights to custody and parenting time. Further, the non-biological parent was deemed a “psychological parent” with rights equal to the other two, including the right to object to the mother’s relocation of the child (which was upheld).
While the current model of “tri-parenting” does not give the third adult legal parentage status, that person retains all of the other rights traditionally afforded to legal parents. While the court exhibited sympathy for the third parent, it opined that it did not have jurisdiction to create a “parentage” category beyond that which already exists: genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy (i.e., serving as gestational carrier, as in the case of a surrogate). It remains to be seen, however, whether the New Jersey—or any other state’s legislature—will expand the parentage definition to embrace the tri-parenting model.
Risks and benefits
In addition to creating a unique legal arrangement, other elements of the tri-parenting relationship may cause prospective parents to carefully consider whether this type of family structure is truly in a child’s best interests. As demonstrated by the New Jersey case, it’s just as possible for a tri-parental relationship to fail as it is for the traditional two-parent scenario. However, divorce laws are currently drafted to deal with custody and visitation between two parents, not three.
While the law has apparently accepted tri-parenting in New Jersey, other (more conservative) states would likely not give it a second glance—leaving the non-biological/non-adoptive parent without a legal leg to stand on. Moreover, devising a parenting plan when two parents separate is often contentious; creating a plan around three parents arguably only increases potential complications.
The tri-parenting model can also create a sense of unpredictability for children, as recently discussed in an interview with the chairman of the National Center for Public Policy Research, Amy Ridenour. During the discussion, Ridenour brought up the seemingly obvious problem with a third parent, when she stated, “[I]n a three-person parental agreement, as in the New Jersey case, one [parent] is left out. Someone was going to suffer in this case. As adults do tend to pair up, and we live in a mobile society, this was entirely predictable. Tri-parent arrangements will overwhelmingly tend to have a third wheel.”
However, these issues aside, with the right people and under the right circumstances, tri-parenting could potentially create a unique and holistic safety net for the parents and the child, helping to ensure that all parties have adequate support. That’s something that all families could use from time to time.
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Source: AVVO Stories