Originally published in Meridian Magazine
In the midst of a global pandemic, widespread Black Lives Matter protests, and general national upheaval, last week some good news for parental and children’s rights went virtually unnoticed.
In a unanimous decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot override the rights of a fit parent in child custody cases. Specifically, when “a nonparent requests conservatorship or possession of a child, the child’s best interest is embedded with the presumption that it is the fit parent—not a court—who makes the determination whether to allow that request.”
Translation: parents have a right to their own children. And that means the flipside must also be true; children have a right to their parents, and shouldn’t be arbitrarily separated from them.
Preserving parental rights
The ruling resolved a case in which several days a month a biological father, Chris, was being forced to drop his daughter Ann off at the home of “J.D.” the boyfriend of his daughter’s deceased mother. Chris and his ex-wife divorced when Ann was two and split custody. After Chris’s ex started dating J.D., she was tragically killed in a car accident. Following her mother’s death, Ann lived exclusively with her dad. But last year a lower court granted partial custody to J.D. despite the fact that Chris was a fit parent, Ann had lived with J.D. for less than six months, and Ann stated she did not want contact with the boyfriend. The shocking ruling meant that Ann was forced to live part-time with an unrelated man she barely knew.
Last week’s Texas Supreme Court ruling overturned the lower court’s dangerous decision. Alliance Defending Freedom’s President Michael Farris summarizes, “A child’s best interests are not served by ignoring the rights of a fit parent in favor of the demands of someone who is legally a stranger to the child. Any state action significantly limiting those rights must, at a minimum, establish that the child would suffer some type of harm if she were to remain in the care of the parent. But here, the trial court required no such showing of harm. Instead, it held that multiple times each month, the child’s natural father had to leave his daughter in the home of someone who was unrelated to her and who she had lived with less than a year. This was over the father’s express objections and with no indication that he is unfit to care for her. The Texas Supreme Court was right to affirm the constitutional requirement that a parent’s decision is presumed to be in the child’s best interest.”
Protecting the rights and well-being of children
The Supreme Court’s decision was an unqualified victory not just for Ann, but for children everywhere. Had the lower court’s ruling been allowed to stand, it would have had several wide-ranging and detrimental impacts.
First, it would have significantly weakened the rights of biological parents in custody battles, opening the door to any non-relative seeking to claim a child. That’s a problem because while there are abusive and neglectful biological parents, statistically biological parents are the most connected to, protective of, and invested in their children. In contrast, unrelated cohabiting adults, especially mother’s live-in boyfriend, statistically pose the greatest threat to child well-being. That’s the very reason why adoptive parents like me must prove their “fitness” prior to child placement. The Supreme Court’s decision means the safest adults in a child’s life will be prioritized in custody disputes.
Second, the lower court’s answer to the question “to whom do children belong?” seemed to be, “children belong to whomever the state says they belong.” If that precedent were set, it would be a massive power grab for the state, one from which no parent or child would be safe. The Supreme Court’s ruling gets the answer to that question right, “children belong to their parents.”
Third, legal battles are raging across the country to determine what it takes to be deemed the parent to a child conceived via reproductive technologies. Historically, the basis for parenthood has correctly been either biology or adoption. Now, progressive forces are pushing for “intent” as a basis of parenthood. That is, if an unrelated adult “intends” to parent a child, the state deems them the parent. Functionally, intent-based parenthood renders children mere commodities to be awarded to whatever adult has the money and means to acquire them, even if they aren’t related and haven’t undergone the screening and vetting required of adoptive parents. The Texas Supreme Court ruling communicates a long-standing familial reality- when it comes to parental rights and children’s rights, “intent” to parent isn’t enough. Biology matters.
Good news for the family
These are tumultuous times for our nation. All the more reason to recognize and celebrate court decisions that strengthen the family and by extension the nation at large. In the case of Chris and his daughter Ann, the courts did exactly that.