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Montana Court Grants Custody Rights to Lesbian Partner

Montana District Court Judge Ed McLean today released a decision recognizing Michelle Kulstad as a parent to the two children she raised together with Barbara Maniaci, granting Kulstad time with her children and ordering that Kulstad have joint decision-making authority for matters significantly affecting the children, including their “education, activities, health care and spiritual upbringing.”


Kulstad and Maniaci, both of the Missoula area, ended their relationship in 2006. Maniaci, as the “legally adoptive” parent claimed that Kulstad had no custodial rights to their children, that she should not be granted visitation rights, and that she was a “legal stranger” to the children.

The court rejected those arguments and ruled that it was in the best interest of the children for their parent-child relationship with Kulstad to continue, finding that Kulstad was a parent to the children and that the children had a constitutional right to have that relationship continue. The court noted that Kulstad provided for the children and raised them with Maniaci, and the children recognized her as a parent. The court said, “. . . the evidence shows that rupture of the children’s relationship with Ms. Kulstad would be not only contrary to their best interests, but severely detrimental to their well-being.”

“By acknowledging Kulstad as a parent, the court today recognized that it would be both cruel and against established Montana law for her children to be denied the parental love and support Kulstad has shown them since they entered her home,” said Kulstad’s attorney Susan Ridgeway.

The courts and child welfare experts have long recognized that it is important for children to be able to maintain relationships with both of their parents after a breakup. As Betsy Griffing, ACLU Legal Director, explains, “Michelle clearly has a strong parental bond with the children and is the main stabilizing influence in their lives. Such a parental bond is constitutionally protected not only with respect to Michelle, but also the children. We are looking at a constitutionally protected parent-child relationship that Barbara herself helped to create and foster.”

The decision is a victory for the rights of Montana families and the best interests of Montana children. For Michelle Kulstad, it allows her to preserve her relationship with the children she loves and has raised — to be the parent to her children that indeed she is. “They should be allowed to just be children,” Kulstad says, “And to know that we both love them, even though we aren’t living together any more. They need to know that it’s OK for them to love both of us.”

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