In February, Rosie O’Donnell filed for divorce from her wife Michelle Rounds after nearly three years of marriage and co-adopting a daughter in 2013. Now the two are duking it out in court and Rounds is seeking sole custody of the child. As the O’Donnell versus Rounds gun slinging plays out in court (and the tabloids), back in Texas, Connatser Family Law client Inez Edwards says she can relate.*
You see, Inez went through a contentious custody battle with her former wife Jill last year. “I went through a year of heartache, before the case was resolved. Along the way I had to hear blatant lies stated about me in open court and felt I faced bias against me as the adoptive parent (Jill is Inez’s daughter Anna’s biological mother),” Inez explains.
A Heartbroken and Frustrated Mom Seeks Out Better Legal Advice
It was after a number of hearings that Inez lost faith in her original legal team and contacted Connatser Family Law. She shared her story with family law attorneys Aubrey Connatser and Christine Powers Leatherberry, and they agreed to take her case.
“Aubrey and I were really moved by Inez’s story. Her ex was trying to erase Inez from her daughter’s life at 7 years old. Inez is the type of mom who loves to play with her child and coach her soccer team. We could see she was really a hands-on mom, who always puts her daughter first. The fact that she wasn’t the biological parent, didn’t make her any less capable of being a great mom,” says Christine.
Same-Sex Parents Face Many Hurdles and Jurisdictions
As with many same sex couples and parents, Inez’s road to family court in Texas spanned many states and locales. She and Jill met in Texas, but the couple couldn’t legally marry here since Texas doesn’t recognize same sex marriage. The two married in New York where same-sex marriage is legal, and after Inez was unable to conceive via artificial insemination, Jill agreed to carry the baby and allow Inez to adopt Anna shortly after her birth.
Inez says, “I was involved every step of the way. It was actually my idea to begin with, and I was surprised when she agreed to have the baby, because she’s not a big kid person. So even before we started the insemination process, I looked into adoption in Texas to see if it would be legal for me, as a partner in a same sex relationship, to adopt a child in Texas, and it was.”
By the time the couple’s marriage fell apart, the two were living in North Carolina (which doesn’t recognize same sex marriage), and the custody battle began. Inez filed for joint custody and Jill fired back by attempting to nullify the adoption and terminate Inez’s parental rights. Since North Carolina doesn’t recognize gay marriage or custody, the dispute turned into a state’s rights case based on the U.S. constitution, and Inez’s adoption in Texas was upheld.
For Inez, things went downhill from there. “Jill was offered a job in Texas, and in order to maintain ties with my daughter, I agreed to move back to Texas as well. We met with an arbitrator, got our parenting agreement, finalized the paperwork and made the move,” Inez says. However, a year after moving back to Texas, Jill filed a motion to modify the parenting agreement.
Child Custody Modifications Come with Strict Standards
According to Christine, “Under normal circumstances, you can request a modification of a custody agreement every three years. However, when circumstances of the parties or child have materially and substantially changed, the court will hear cases earlier.
You also can’t change who is the primary parent within one year of the custody decree, unless the child’s physical health is endangered or the child is significantly impaired in emotional development. You can’t modify early unless something significant happens.”
Biological and Adoptive Parents Are Equal Parents in Texas
Which takes us back to the challenges Inez faced with her original legal team. “Texas Family Code 101.024 clearly defines who is considered a parent in the state of Texas, and both the biological and adoptive parents are considered equal parents under Texas law. We request in court that both adoptive and biological parents be referred to as a parent and/or that the jury is instructed they are the same,” explains Christine.
Inez says, “In the next hearing, it was the first time Aubrey and Christine represented me in the court room. They were able to get a home study ordered and another court date. I had repeatedly asked for counseling and a home study in the past and it was denied, denied, denied. Now, following the home study I ended up with an expanded standard possession order and back where I was a year earlier.”
Advice from a Loving, Adoptive Mom Who Fought for Her Daughter
After Inez’s experience, she says, “The one thing I would say to anyone who is in a relationship where a child is involved, if you can mend those fences and stay together for that child, that should be your first option. If you decide you can’t, then go the collaborative route if at all possible. Though as hard as I tried, that didn’t work in my case.
The main thing was the effect it had on my daughter, I did everything I could to minimize it, but it was very difficult. Having Aubrey and Christine on my side made such a difference in my case. It really changed my life, actually, it saved my life. Not only are they knowledgeable and experienced, they were also empathetic and listened and knew what was important to me.”
Christine says, “Adoptive parents in Texas, whether they were in a heterosexual or same sex relationship, should remember they are considered equal parents under Texas law. If you are facing a child custody battle, find a reputable family law attorney with experience representing adoptive parents near you.”
* Client name, names of parties related to this case and minor details have been changed.
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