Zavos testifies on parentage bill

Testimony by Michele Zavos, MICHELE ZAVOS LAW GROUP, PLLC on
“Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Act of 2008”, Bill 17-727

D.C. City Council Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary
Friday, July 11, 2008

Good Afternoon. My name is Michele Zavos. Thank you for the opportunity to testify about Bill 17-727, the “Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Act of 2008.

I am an attorney in private practice, practicing in the District of Columbia and Maryland. I am the principal in the MICHELE ZAVOS LAW GROUP, PLLC. I have been an attorney for almost 30 years, and have spent most of my career representing lesbians and gay men in the formation and protection of their families. I have represented thousands of lesbians and gay men in the District and Maryland.

I have been a DC resident in Ward 5 in Brookland for almost 30 years. I graduated from the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University in 1979 and have worked most of the time since then as an attorney in private practice the District of Columbia.

I taught as an adjunct professor for the Women's Studies Program at the George Washington University and the Washington College of Law at American University for many years and was named Outstanding Adjunct Professor in 1999 by American University. I have received many awards from LGBT organizations for my longstanding service to the LGBT community, including Women in the Life’s Warrior’s Award, Capital Pride's Director's Award for Family, Woman's Monthly Community Service Award, Whitman-Walker Lesbian Services Program Community Service Award, and the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club Jerome Heilman Community Service Award.

I was one of the first co-chairs of the Gay and Lesbian Subcommittee of the D.C. Bar, the precursor to GAYLAW. I served on the District of Columbia Federal Judicial Nominating Commission by appointment of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and served on the Adoption Rules Committee for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. I am an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.

I come here today to recommend that Bill 17-727 be passed by the City Council. In my legal practice I have seen the results of the present uncertainty in the law regarding legal relationships between same-sex parents and their children. Bill 17-727 will go far in resolving those uncertainties. Additionally, this bill recognizes that same-sex couples should be treated in the law on an equal basis as heterosexual couples, thereby giving these couples and their families the dignity and equality in the law that they deserve.

Currently, in order for a same-sex couple who has used donor insemination to each have legal relationships to their children, the couple must go through a fairly lengthy and invasive court process of second-parent adoption. I have assisted clients in completing hundreds of these adoptions so I am intimately familiar with the process and the stress it can create for families. I agree with Professor Polikoff’s observations that this legislation will go far in treating children born to registered domestic partners identically to those born to married couples and in treating unregistered domestic partners identically to those born to unmarried heterosexual couples.

Before turning to the proposals in Bill 17-727, I would like to add my strong and unequivocal support for Professor Polikoff’s suggestion that a new section be added to the bill that would give judges discretion to waive an adoption home study in an adoption proceeding. When I first began representing clients in adoption matters in the District shortly after the decision in In re M.M.D, 662 A. 2d 837 (D.C.1995), judges very quickly routinely waived home studies in second-parent adoption cases, based on the theory that a child was born to the couple, just like in a heterosexual relationship. Therefore, a home study was unnecessary as one parent was already a legal parent to the child, also similar to a step-parent adoption. Of course, in a second-parent adoption, almost always the couple planned together to have the child, identical to a heterosexual couple planning to have children together. About 4 years ago however, judges narrowed their interpretation of DC Code 16-308 and began ordering home studies in these cases, subjecting parents to unnecessary intrusions into their lives. These judges felt constrained by the language in 16-308 as it only includes the word “spouse” as a category where a judge can waive a home study. Adding the word “domestic partner” and “living in a committed personal relationship with the parent” would allow second-parent adoptions to occur without a home study, if a judge determined that was appropriate. This change of language would give a judge the same discretion in a second-parent adoption as a judge has in a step-parent adoption. The change would not affect adoptions between adoptive parents and children where there is no previous relationship. There, home studies would still be required under the law.

The proposed amendments to DC Codes Sections 16-907, 908, and 909 will insure that same-sex couples having biological children are the presumed legal parents of those children. With Professor Polikoff’s suggested changes, these amendments create an immediate establishment of parentage. At present, for the nonbiological parent to obtain a legal relationship to that parent’s children, the couple must go through the second-parent adoption process in the District of Columbia. Under DC law, the Court may not grant an adoption to ANY adoptive parent until the minor child has lived with that parent for at least six months. That means that the child and the nonbiological parent are legal strangers to each other for at least six months after birth. During that period a nonbiological parent may die, thus depriving the child of social security death benefits, or a couple may separate, thus causing a dispute over the nonbiological parent’s right to a legal relationship with the child.

The proposed amendments to DC Code 7-205 (e) will give same-sex couples the same right as heterosexual couples to name their children. I also agree with Professor Polikoff’s suggested changes. Currently, unlike Maryland or Virginia, the District requires that the name of a newborn be related to the surname of the child’s mother or father. The present law ignores the reality of the many children born to same-sex couples through artificial insemination, and diminishes their families. Currently, in order for a same-sex couple with different surnames to give the surname of their choice to their child, they must either go through a second-parent adoption where the child’s surname may be changed as part of that case, or change the child’s name through the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in a civil name change proceeding.

Again, thank you for allowing me to testify on these important matters. I commend the Committee for undertaking the changes to our Code as set forth in the Parentage Act. I completely support its passage as it recognizes the families of same-sex couples as equal to heterosexual families, and gives children in our families legal protections that they need.