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Utah high court denies parental rights for non-blood partners

[JURIST] The Utah Supreme Court [official website] Friday restricted parental rights to biological parents in the cases of unmarried parents raising children related by blood to only one partner. The case at issue involved a five-year old girl conceived in a lesbian relationship, whose biological mother Cheryl Pike Barlow sought to restrict the visitation rights of her former partner Keri Lynne Jones. While the case involves a same-sex relationship, the ruling also applies to heterosexual couples.

The state supreme court's decision [PDF text] reverses a lower court holding that granted the partner visitation under the common law in loco parentis doctrine, in which a person acts as a parent although they have no blood or legal ties to a child. The court wrote:

We hold that the doctrine of in loco parentis, as recognized by the courts of this state, does not independently grant standing to seek visitation after the in loco parentis relationship has ended. Although this court recognized the right of stepparents to seek visitation in Gribble v. Gribble, 583 P.2d 64 (Utah 1978), standing in that case arose out of an interpretation of statutory law granting such rights, not from an independent common law source. We decline to extend the common law doctrine of in loco parentis to create standing where it does not arise out of statute. We accordingly overturn the trial court's grant of visitation rights and hold that the common law doctrine of in loco parentis does not independently grant standing to seek visitation against the wishes of a fit legal parent.
Kathryn Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights [advocacy website] who represented Jones, criticized the decision for having the potential to separate children from care-givers with whom they have bonded. She also said that since homosexual parents cannot legally marry or adopt in Utah, the decision could deprive a whole class of parents from access to their children. The Alliance Defense Fund [advocacy website], a conservative religious legal organization affiliated with Barlow's attorney, released a statement calling the ruling a triumph for traditional parental rights. The Salt Lake Tribune has more.

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