NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — Sara Watson and Anna Ford decided on their son’s name four days after he was born. But when they went to fill out his birth certificate and name him “Eli,” they received some unexpected news.
“The hospital staff said, we’re really, really sorry but you can’t put your name on this birth certificate,” Watson recalled.
Rhode Island’s birth certificates have a place for the name of the child’s mother and the name of the child’s father. But for same-sex couples, establishing parentage isn’t as straightforward.
Eli is biologically Watson’s son — the couple used Watson’s egg with sperm from an anonymous donor — but Ford carried and delivered him, meaning she had automatic maternal rights to him.
“This is another example of how the paperwork and the legal process has not kept pace with the times,” Ford said.
The pair thought they had done everything right and made sure to consult with attorneys along the way to ensure they were both legally protected.
“We thought when he was born we were good to go, and it turned out that that was wrong,” Watson said.
Right now, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Erin Lynch Prata explains it, Rhode Island’s laws around parentage have major gaps, especially when it comes to same-sex parents and those who use assisted reproductive technology. She and other advocates say the state’s parentage laws haven’t been updated since the 1970s.
“These people plan this family together, and this child always belonged to both of them, but legally the child didn’t, so that’s something we’re looking to fix,” said Lynch Prata, D-Warwick.
This session, Lynch Prata and Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-Narragansett, sponsored companion bills that would have updated the state law and allowed couples like Ford and Watson the opportunity to put both of their names on their son’s birth certificate.
The bill was based on the Uniform Parentage Act, which was drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 2017. Vermont and Maine have passed new parentage acts into law, and Lynch said other New England states have updated their parentage laws in other ways while Rhode Island has lagged behind.
The LGBTQ rights organization GLAD is another supporter of the bill. Its senior staff attorney Patience “Polly” Crozier, who also serves on the Uniform Law Commission’s national Uniform Parentage Act Enactment Committee, testified in favor of the bill at a Senate hearing this spring.
“Comprehensive legislation is needed to provide clarity for courts and families on who can be a parent and how parentage is established,” she said in written remarks. “By considering this Act, the Legislature is responding to the needs of children and families through crucial legislation that addresses the needs of Rhode Island families for clarity, accessibility and stability in their family relationships.”
While the bill received unanimous support in the Senate, the House voted instead to create a study commission that will begin meeting next fall. The commission comes in response to concerns raised by the Rhode Island Family Court’s Chief Judge Michael Forte.
According to a court spokesman, Forte believes the bill’s language is too confusing. He also thinks the Family Court should have played a role in drafting the bill.
“It was not my desire to in any way derail this effort but after reviewing the legislation with my legal counsel, I felt the court and other interested parties needed to be allowed to have a voice,” Forte said. “This should not be rammed through without making sure the interests of children aren’t being compromised.”
“It is my job to ensure a safe process that is in the best interest of children,” the judge added. “Sometimes this takes the courage to speak up.”
Lynch Prata said she believes the concerns Forte voiced during the hearing were adequately addressed.
“This request for a study commission now, it delays justice for these families and it’s unfair,” she said.
Watson and Ford are now both legal parents of 2-year-old Eli, but they say the process was unnecessarily slow, worrisome and expensive.
In Rhode Island, a child is required to live with the prospective adoptive parent for at least six months before the adoption can move forward. Watson said the earliest court date they could get was eight months after Eli was born.
“If something had happened to Anna, if she had gotten into a car accident when Eli was three months old, where would my son have gone? Who would have taken care of him?” Watson asked. “The state could have taken my son and put him into DCYF care. That’s absolutely unconscionable. I don’t understand how anybody could think that’s not an emergency to correct.”
Without her name on her son’s birth certificate, Watson couldn’t attend Eli’s doctor’s appointments or pick him up from daycare without Ford’s consent. She couldn’t add her son to her insurance or file for a caregiver leave from work.
In the eight months leading up to Eli’s adoption, Watson said she underwent a background check, fingerprinting, home visits and interviews. The pair also had to pay for an advertisement in a newspaper to alert their anonymous sperm donor of Watson’s intention to adopt her son.
“Notice to the father of a child born from sperm donated to the New England Cryogenic Center,” read the ad in the July 6, 2017, edition of the Marlborough Enterprise. “A case has been brought in the Rhode Island Family Court to decide whether you have any parental rights to this child. If you do not appear at a hearing about this matter … an order will enter without your consent that you no longer have any rights to this child, and the child may be adopted.”
“Our experience was traumatizing just in terms of realizing the sperm we used had more rights than Sara did,” Ford said.
A court spokesman said Forte abolished the requirement to advertise adoptions in cases of sperm donations this year.
Watson and Ford said they’re frustrated that the parentage bill didn’t make it to the governor’s desk this year, but they’re hopeful for a different outcome next session.