Lesbian Custody Case in Court
Mar. 18, 1999
GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) _ Like many children, a 9-year-old girl in Golden divides her time between two parents who no longer share a home.
Unlike most, she calls one parent ``Mom'' and the other ``Nana.''
It's an unusual family situation that is bound by an even more unusual court order requiring Kelly Cunningham, or ``Mom,'' and Leanne Bueker, or ``Nana,'' to share custody of the girl in Colorado.
The case, which has been hailed by gay rights advocates as a landmark custody ruling, was back in county court today.
Responding to a motion to close the hearing, Jefferson County District Judge Christopher Munch ruled the public would be permitted to attend parts involving nonemotional issues, such as jobs and finances, but that testimony about the child's emotional welfare would be kept private.
``I have to do a balancing act here,'' Munch said. The motion to close had been brought by attorneys for both sides, who said publicity about the case already has led other children to tease the girl.
Munch must decide whether Ms. Cunningham may take the child to Albany, N.Y., to create a family with her new husband, Michael Naylor.
Ms. Cunningham has contended the joint custody order has denied her daughter the opportunity to live in a stable, loving environment. Ms. Bueker claimed it is in the best interest of the girl to remain in Colorado, where both women may play an active role in her life.
A telephone message seeking comment from Ms. Cunningham's attorney was not returned, and Ms. Bueker's current attorney declined comment. But Mara Pawlowski, who represented Ms. Bueker until recently, said the key is the finding the best interest of the child.
``This child is a very bright, gifted child who does not want to move to New York,'' she said.
Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Bueker began a relationship and moved in together in 1987. They decided the next year to have a child, according to court records, and Ms. Cunningham was artificially inseminated.
Her daughter was born in July 1989. Seven years later, Ms. Cunningham, a computer programmer, informed Ms. Bueker that she had met Naylor through the Internet, fallen in love and wanted to pursue a relationship.
The women separated and Ms. Bueker, a mortgage banking supervisor, sued for custody even though she was not listed on the birth certificate and did not adopt the girl legally.
Court records indicate the child loved both women equally and feared losing one through the breakup.
Last year, Jefferson County District Judge Frank Plaut awarded the two women joint custody, calling Ms. Cunningham the girl's ``biological'' mother and Ms. Bueker the ``psychological'' mother.
He based the decision on a state law granting custody rights to an unrelated person who has had physical custody of a child for at least six months prior to a separation.
Plaut also said the girl should remain in Colorado, where she could be nurtured by both women.
The decision was one of a handful nationwide in which a court has legally recognized a family with parents of the same sex, said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
In the past five years, the number of lesbian custody cases nationwide has grown from three to as many as 15 a year, she said. Custody is awarded the biological parent in about 70 percent of those cases.
``The most important issue is that this family be treated by the court in the same way the court would treat a heterosexual-headed household with the very same issues presented,'' Kendell said.