Outdated laws hindering equality for LGBTQ families

New Jersey graphic rainbow colors with youth graphic

Five leading national organizations that advocate for LGBTQ families joined forces on a new report that details how the current patchwork of parentage laws across the country — many of which haven’t been updated in decades — leaves LGBTQ parents and their children vulnerable.

Movement Advancement Project (MAP), COLAGE, Family Equality, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) are behind this new report, titled Relationships at Risk: Why We Need to Update State Parentage Laws to Protect Children and Families.

According to the report, nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ adults in the U.S. are raising children under the age of 18, many of them in states that still have outdated laws. This means that far too many children in LGBTQ families are potentially at risk, the report claims.

“LGBTQ families form through love, intention, and care, and children of LGBTQ parents, like all children, need and deserve to know their families are secure,” said Jordan Budd, executive director of COLAGE. “Our laws should protect families, not create barriers to their stability.”

Parentage, as defined by the study, is the legal relationship between a child and their parents, which is essential to children’s security and well-being. Parentage is a crucial aspect of parents’ ability to make critical healthcare and education decisions for their children, to ensure that children have access to important benefits including insurance coverage, Social Security survivor benefits, and inheritance. Legal parentage also ensures a child does not lose their connection to a parent in circumstances such as the death of one parent or the end of the parent’s relationship.

“All children, regardless of who their parents are, should be able to establish a secure legal tie to the parents who love and care for them. Yet, many states’ parentage laws are more than 40 years out of date,” said Naomi Goldberg, deputy director of MAP and the lead author of the report. “This leaves too many LGBTQ families navigating complicated and costly systems to safeguard their connections to their children.”

The report reviews the ways in which legal parentage may be established, which states have updated their laws, and in which states LGBTQ families remain at risk. Families form in many different ways, yet despite the increasing number of LGBTQ families and the increasing number of all families formed through assisted reproduction, to date, fewer than a dozen states have comprehensively updated their parentage laws to reflect the diverse ways today’s families form.

The report found that more than half of states lack clear, accessible, and equitable pathways for LGBTQ parents to establish parentage. As a result, many families face complicated, time-consuming, and costly processes to establish legal ties between parents and children.

Currently, LGBTQ parents in many states must still undergo demeaning and unnecessary “home studies” to adopt their own children and spend thousands in legal costs to secure their parentage, the report says. And for many parents that cost, and access to the courts, are completely out of reach, leaving them at tremendous risk of living under outdated laws.

“When states and courts refuse to give LGBTQ families the same protections as other families, it leaves parents at risk of being shut out of their child’s life.”

“LGBTQ families are a part of every community across the country, yet many LGBTQ families still face expensive and demeaning barriers to providing legal security for their children,” said Stacey Stevenson, CEO of Family Equality. “Parents shouldn’t have to navigate a complicated legal system just to ensure their kids are protected.”

In the most heart-wrenching cases, children have been pulled into the child welfare system because a parent wasn’t recognized as a legal parent. Non-birth parents who planned for and raised their kids have also been stripped of their parental rights because a court relied on outdated laws that fail to acknowledge the existence of same-gender parents.

“We are seeing far too many heartbreaking examples of the discrimination that LGBTQ+ parents continue to face in the United States,” said Nesta Johnson, NCLR Family Law staff attorney. “When states and courts refuse to give LGBTQ families the same protections as other families, it leaves parents at risk of being shut out of their child’s life and children at risk of losing a parent who loves and cares for them.”

While detailing the importance of legal parentage and outlining the risks to LGBTQ families, the report also shows the path forward. It highlights states that have taken crucial steps to update their parentage laws in recent years, including Colorado, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — and a state like Massachusetts, which has the opportunity right now to protect LGBTQ families.

“Families form in many ways and our laws must reflect that, so children have equality and security. States like Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Colorado have led the way by updating their laws to ensure child-centered, equal, and accessible paths to legal parentage for all families, including LGBTQ families,” said Polly Crozier, director of family advocacy at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. “Especially as LGBTQ families face growing threats across the country, we urgently need more states to pass comprehensive parentage reform to recognize contemporary families and protect all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.”