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Lesbian Parent Sues to Gain Visitation Rights After Couple’s Split

February 3, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A judge has ruled that a lesbian couple’s dispute over custody of a child they raised together can proceed to trial, in a case that tests a mostly uncharted area of family law, a lawyer said.

″At the heart of it are fundamental concepts of family, equality and the right of persons who are lesbian to have access to their children,″ attorney Gloria Allred said Wednesday.

The lawsuit arises at a time when lesbian partners increasingly are arranging to have children, either by adoption or artificial insemination.

Allred’s client, Terri Sabol, 32, of Long Beach, is seeking legal joint custody of a 2-year-old girl who was born to Sabol’s then-partner.

The couple conceived the child through artificial insemination, using sperm donated by a relative of Ms. Sabol’s, Ms. Allred said in a telephone interview.

When the couple broke up, the 29-year-old mother, who was not identified, allegedly began to restrict Ms. Sabol’s time with the girl and refused to permit Ms. Sabol to participate in parental decisions.

Ms. Sabol sued on Nov. 29 to establish her rights as a parent.

″We asked the court to recognize that this was a family, although not a traditional one, and that it would be unfair to deprive our client of contact with the child,″ Ms. Allred said.

The mother’s attorney, Mitchell Jacobs, responded by seeking to dismiss the case in a legal motion known as a demurrer, which argues that the court has no legal authority to consider the claim.

But on Monday, Superior Judge Richard E. Denner overruled the defendant’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to determine if Ms. Sabol has a legal right to joint legal and physical custody. No trial date has been scheduled.

″My client has no comment on the case,″ Jacobs said after the decision.

Ms. Sabol expressed relief at the ruling and said she had not had contact with the child for three months.

″There are literally thousands of people now in my situation ... but there are no laws protecting us,″ she said in a telephone interview.

The court has sealed records in the case, according to a bailiff for Denner.

Roberta Achtenberg, directing attorney of the Lesbian Rights Project in San Francisco, said she was aware of a half-dozen similar cases in California in recent years, as well as a few in New York. However, there is ″no controlling legal precedent″ because no case has ever reached appellate level, she said.

To gain a court hearing, a parental custody claim typically must cite a recognized legal relationship to the child, usually by a dissolution of marriage or paternity claim, Ms. Achtenberg said. But neither claim is available to a lesbian parent.

Without specific guidance from the legislature, said Ms. Achtenberg, ″The courts have gotten stuck over their authority to hear a claim by a person who is not related to the mother, and who is not related to the child.″

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