How the terms “parenthood” and “family” are defined continues to evolve. Today, it is not uncommon for a child to have a parent-child relationship with someone other than his or her biological parents. As the needs of children change, and as society changes, so does the law surrounding issues of custody and parenting time.
A third party who lives in a family-like environment with a child, with the consent of the legal parent, may very well become that child’s psychological parent. We can see that situation when a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or neighbor is called upon to take care of their grandchild, niece, nephew, or close family friend when the legal parent has a mental health issue or drug or alcohol problem.
A third party who has been entrusted to care for the child, develops a parental relationship with the child for a significant length of time, and lives with and is bonded with the child, can be deemed a psychological parent, and this psychological parent’s role becomes akin to the role of the natural parent. If a court is called upon to make a determination between the legal parent and the psychological parent, the court must use a best-interests-of-the-child standard.
There are situations where a third party seeks to terminate the legal rights of a natural parent and obtain custody of a child. Here, the party may seek to become the guardian of the child. In a guardianship application, the prospective guardian must show that the parent is unfit, or has abandoned the child, or has committed some other gross misconduct with exceptional circumstances, to overcome the deference given to legal parents.
In a situation where a third party seeks to care for a child but not extinguish parental rights, a kinship legal guardianship provides a viable alternative. A kinship relationship can be defined as one where a relative or family friend is connected to a child or a child’s parents by an established positive psychological or emotional relationship.
Adoption may also be a viable option in certain circumstances. Adoption is the most permanent legal option for those seeking to obtain custody. Adoptive parents stand on equal footing with legal parents and are afforded the same rights and protections under the law.
As we see the definition of family expanding, so too does the law surrounding those issues. The best interests of the child remain paramount, but love, support, and stability may very well come from someone other than their biological parent.