Two Washington state bills address parental custody issues discussed in Inlander cover story

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Ron Simon walks through the bedroom of his son, who hasn't been home in nearly three years - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Ron Simon walks through the bedroom of his son, who hasn't been home in nearly three years

There are certain times when Washington courts give a person who is not a child's parent the same rights as a biological parent. But, as our cover story this week illustrates, the process of making that determination can leave biological parents fighting for the right to their own child.

In this year's legislative session, two bills would clarify state law on parental rights, but mostly follow the direction of state and federal courts on parental custody in recent decades. The first, Senate Bill 6037, would make Washington one of the first states to adopt the 2017 Uniform Parentage Act, which, in part, codifies language on what a "de facto" parent is. The second, Senate Bill 5598, would grant relatives, such as grandparents, the right to seek visitation with a child through the courts.

SB 6037, which passed both the Senate and the House, stirred debate in the Legislature because it would allow a surrogate mother to be paid more than the costs of medical and other expenses. But the bill included other provisions, like putting into state statute what constitutes a "de facto" parent.

Washington courts have ruled that a nonbiological parent can be a de facto parent if they meet certain criteria. A majority of states have some sort of similar law, but Washington is one of several states that grants de facto parents the same rights as a biological parent — an interpretation some disagree with.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, says the bill would only put into law what the courts have already decided regarding de facto parents. In order to become a de facto parent, a person must:
  • Reside with the child as a member of the household for a significant period of time
  • Engage in consistent caretaking of the child
  • Undertake parental responsibilities without expecting financial compensation
  • Establish a bonded, dependent and parental relationship with the child
  • Have the relationship fostered by another parent
  • Prove the relationship is in the best interest of the child
Washington is one of three states that has introduced the 2017 Uniform Parentage Act into its Legislature this year.

The second bill that was also sponsored by Pedersen, Senate Bill 5598, would address a state statute that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. That decision centered around whether or not grandparents had the right to visit their grandchild if it was in the child's best interest, despite parent objections. It's a situation that can arise if one parent dies, for instance, but the grandparents still wish to maintain a relationship with the child.

The Supreme Court, in ruling against the law that allowed for that, wrote that parental custody and control of their children "is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this court."

But ever since then, says Pedersen, the state has not had any statute addressing grandparent visitation.

"We are the only state in the country that doesn't have an effective visitation statute," Pedersen says.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, would allow for grandparents or relatives to petition for court-ordered visitation with a child. Pedersen says it avoids the pitfalls that led the Supreme Court to strike down the law in 2000. For example, instead of any person at any time being able to come into court and petition for visitation rights, SB 5598 restricts it to only relatives who have an ongoing relationship with the child. The relatives must also demonstrate that denying visitation would harm the child.

"It's way narrower than the old statute," Pedersen says.

You can see the text of each bill here and here.