State Supreme Court awards visitation to lesbian's ex-partner

The court ruled the pair had co-parented their two girls, even though only one was the adoptive mother.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed Thursday that a lesbian could have visitation privileges with the children she had been raising with the children's adoptive mother.

Marilyn Johnson, the adoptive mother of the two girls, had argued that her longtime partner, Nancy SooHoo, should not have visitation rights because it undermined her authority as the sole legal parent.

A District Court had granted visitation rights to SooHoo in 2005. Although SooHoo had not legally adopted the children, who were from China, "the record indicates that Johnson and SooHoo co-parented the children, recognized themselves as a family unit with two mothers, and represented themselves to others as such," court records said.

SooHoo called the decision "a victory for the children" and said it had implications for visitation rights of other nontraditional families.

"The children are the obvious winners in this," said SooHoo, of Minneapolis. "I believe they're healthier having both parents. I've known them all their lives. Because of a [lack of] signature on an adoption paper, they could have been yanked from me forever."

Johnson did not return phone calls Thursday. But court documents show that Johnson had contended that the visitation rights were unconstitutional because they did not give proper deference to a fit parent's decision regarding visitation.

Johnson also had argued that the District Court abused its discretion in the amount of visitation it awarded SooHoo because it was the same amount it would award a noncustodial parent. But the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's visitation award.

Rainbow Families, a Minneapolis organization serving gay and lesbian parents and their children, applauded the high court decision.

SooHoo is a former board member of the organization. "The case shows the need for legal protection for non-married persons who provide a home, support, love and for the well-being of children in their care," said Mary Stennes Wilbourn, outreach director for the organization.

While there are visitation laws for married couples that split up, as well as for couples who divorce after jointly adopting children, family law doesn't specifically address such cases as that of Johnson and SooHoo, said Laura Smidzik, executive director of the Rainbow Coalition. SooHoo, therefore, sought visitation privileges through a legal provision offering visitation privileges to "interested third parties" -- people who had emotional ties to the children and whose visits would be in the children's best interest.

SooHoo's attorney, Michael Perlman, said the court's decision, while promising for gay couples, was narrowly focused and is not likely to "open the floodgates for anyone who's ever been denied visitation to go back to court to try again" -- such as non-custodial divorced parents or grandparents, he said.

It's unclear precisely how many same-sex families live in Minnesota. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 9,147 same-sex households in the state, said Stennes Wilbourn. However, Rainbow Families believes the number is much higher.

In addition, the court ruled that the lower court had "abused its discretion" when it ordered Johnson to attend counselling. It reversed that decision.

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