The legal landscape

Allison Hoffman Lusero, Indra Lusero, Mark Thrun and Geoffrey Bateman have made every attempt to communicate their intentions as parents, holding family meetings with a social worker and creating signed contracts. It isn’t just for the sake of keeping their relationships healthy; it’s about doing everything they can to ensure that their family decisions are kept within the family — and out of the court.

“Colorado state law doesn’t really protect us in any way, especially Mark or me with my nonbiological child,” Allison says.

Catherine Smith, an associate professor in DU’s Sturm College of Law, is an expert on the lengths nontraditional families must go to to protect themselves. She’s not only a lawyer; she’s a lesbian and a mom whose daughter is not biologically hers. Colorado law doesn’t recognize the nonbiological parent.

“So you do everything you can,” Smith says. “In Indra’s family and mine and countless others, you use contracts and agreements to cobble something together to protect that family unit, but whether it’s going to withstand any kind of review is really in question.”

Smith recently wrote an essay for the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity section of the American Association of Law Schools about a scenario in which a parent dies in a car accident. A child of a biological parent would have a right to wrongful death claims, Social Security and a whole host of things that a child of a nonbiological parent would not because there’s no legal relationship.

There have been some improvements. In 2007, Colorado became the 10th state in the country to allow second-parent adoption, meaning a parent can adopt his or her partner’s biological child without that parent losing parental rights. But it doesn’t apply to kids like Zian and Eliot. Likewise, a new state designated-beneficiary law enables two unmarried adults to designate the other as the person entitled to certain financial protections and decision-making power in major life events.

Smith says these laws are adding more options for gay and lesbian families but still without full equality or full recognition of families.

“You’re still cobbling together what you can, where a lot of these rights are automatic with heterosexual couples with families,” she says.

And these issues are not unique to gay and lesbian parents.

“I think it’s important for people to realize, even outside the context of gay families, that a lot of heterosexual families are trying to do this as well, with step-parents and extended families that might not be recognized in law,” Smith says. “Families like Indra’s are going to push boundaries for those families as well. We all have something to learn from this family of four parents and two kids.”

Elizabeth Suter, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Communication Studies at DU, recently completed research on nontraditional adoptive families and has been studying lesbian and adoptive families for years.

“The intentionality of these family forms, however they choose to bring children into their lives, is remarkable,” she says. “Researchers for a long time were trying to prove that lesbian and gay families were a deficit model. Now what we know in 2009 is when you are so intentionally forming your family and you are having to do additional parenting agreements and contracts and legal arrangements and social worker meetings, I think — and research shows — these are people who are phenomenal parents, and it’s anything but a lesser form of family.

“You get people who are in it, who know what they are doing and who are 110 percent for their children, for their family.”

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