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Traitor Jane: A community divided

Talking to her children through the chain-link fence at their day care, Vicki Lee tried to explain why she wasn’t able to hold them, hug them or take them back to her house to watch movies and eat popcorn, like they used to.

“They’re just 8 and 5 years old,” Lee said. “They don’t understand custody issues or why their two mommies aren’t together anymore.”After more than 10 years of dating, Lee and her partner decided to have children. Through artificial insemination, her partner became pregnant and a young family was started.

“We found an African-American sperm donor for my ex, she’s Caucasian, so the kids would reflect our skin tones,” Lee, who is African-American, said. “We did everything to protect ourselves. I spent thousands of dollars on getting all the right paperwork that I thought would protect me and my children. The state was happy taking my money.”

But, much like many relationships, Lee and her partner separated. Her ex was soon living with another woman.

“I didn’t want to fight for the house or any of the things. I didn’t want to push for anything that would make the children feel uncomfortable or nervous,” Lee said. “That is, and always will be, my first priority.”

Lee moved out and tried to keep contact with the kids. She said she even tried to pay child support. But she said her ex was not interested.

Lee protested and the case went to court, only to be told that she was a legal stranger to the children, and because Utah doesn’t allow for unmarried couples to jointly adopt children, she had no leg to stand on. This came despite an assessment from a court evaluator that said it was in the best interest of the children to maintain contact with Lee, and that the kids saw her as a parent, Lee said.

“I am not allowed to talk to my kids on the phone. I can’t see them at Christmas, and it is slowly killing me. I couldn’t sleep for about two years. There’s no words to describe the pain of knowing where they are and not being able to see them,” Lee said. “Every time I drive past their day care my stomach falls. Just knowing they’re in there makes my heart hurt. It’s been three years now and not a day goes by that I don’t wish that I could have some sort of contact with my kids. Any contact at all.”

Lee knew visiting her kids through the chain-link fence at the day care could get her in trouble. But their birthdays were coming up, and she knew she had to get them something, even if she wouldn’t be able to deliver it personally. She would just have to leave the perfectly wrapped presents with the cards on their doorstep and leave.

“I don’t want them to think their mom has abandoned them,” Lee said. “I didn’t know what they wanted, so I broke the rules and went to their day care. I knelt down behind the fence and asked them what they wanted. They kept asking me to hold them, to take them back to my house so we could watch movies. It damn near broke my heart.”

Unfortunately, in Utah there’s not much that Lee can do to see her children, Lauren Barros, a family law attorney, said.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled on a case almost identical to Lee’s in the case Jones v. Barlow, for which Barros was a representative. In the case, Keri Jones was denied any visitation opportunities from her ex-partner, Cheryl Barlow, who was the biological mother of their daughter. The court ruled that Jones had no legal right to see the child, despite all the family planning and legal documents that the couple had drafted prior to their separation.

The ruling was a large blow to same-sex families in Utah, but it is frequently used to separate the families by a biological parent after a same-sex couple separates, Barros said. The Jones v. Barlow ruling was used against Lee.

“In order to get around this ruling, couples would have to adopt out of the state or there would have to be a change in Utah law that would allow second-parent adoptions,” Barros said.

The Jones v. Barlow case pits the community against itself and engenders a divisive community, said Heidi Shelton, a member of a support group for women like Lee who lost visitation to their children called Traitor Jane. The group meets regularly and has about 30 regular attendees.

“These people are out there fighting for gay marriage, but when they would have to follow the same rules that straight married couples have to follow, they stop the train,” Shelton said. “It’s sick how much these women are hurting their partners and then turn around and say they are advocating for equal rights.”

The Utah Legislature prohibits a second parent from adopting a child if the couple is not married, and because gays and lesbians cannot marry in Utah, this law effectively bars same-sex couples from adopting. Several attempts have been made to overturn the law and allow for second-parent adoptions, even as recently as in the 2011 session, but none have advanced.

If gay couples were allowed to adopt children jointly, they would be able to pursue the same legal outlets for visitation rights that straight couples have, Barros said.

“We have to fix that law. It is so important. There’s a lot about gay rights going on, and it’s all great, but this law needs to be fixed right now,” Shelton said.

Some days Lee does OK and is able to function, but there are others when the pain of her loss renders her almost inert.

“Some days it’s all I can do to go to work and come home,” Lee said. “But I just want everyone to know the pain I am going through and I don’t want other young girls to go through the same pain. No one ever thinks it can happen to them. But I’m here to tell you that it can.”

*Editor’s note: The original and published version said the following: “Instead, she got a restraining order against Lee, preventing her from having any interaction with the children, Lee said.” No legal record of a restraining order was found before the termination of guardianship by the court.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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2 Comments

  1. It’s pointless to comment on the character (or lack thereof) of women who steal children away from loving mothers. Society is filled with people who claim no ownership of the Golden Rule…hence the need for laws and enforcement of them.

    My issue is, and has been since the day I moved to this odd state 9 years ago, with the state of Utah and its bizarre need to control the lives of people. I realized the day I looked into a mirror wearing a “Utah” shirt and saw the mirror image of HAT U (hate you!) I had discovered what was really going on here. Hate is a strong word, but it, as does intolerance or prejudice, stems from fear. Utah is the most frightened state I have ever been in – and frankly the fear is of non-members, or those of us who are not active members of the LDS religion. We are different and can’t be relied upon to follow THE RULES that come from a locally popular book, so THE RULES must be incorporated into the general laws and legislation that the non-members must abide by.

    Justice cannot be provided to the GLBT community by a system that refuses to acknowledge we exist as equals.

    Lucky for my family, we are leaving the state and soon I will be able to adopt my son. But my heart breaks for those who couldn’t get out of this hell hole soon enough to get protection from the legal system for themselves and their lost children.

    Debbie Thompson

  2. My heart goes out to anyone who has to experience loss in any form, whether it is a loss of a job, family, people who you are close to, your health, income, etc. As human beings, grief and loss become a part of everyday life whether it is on a small scale or a large scale, and we all do the best we can to cope and make the best of it.

    I have compassion for the human race as a whole as we are asked to deal with a lot of complicated experiences and asked to make very difficult decisions as part of our journey. The reality is that in any relationship whether it is straight or gay, if a breakup occurs, there are many difficult and emotional choices that have to be made by both parties. If there are kids involved, the level of difficulty is multiplied by 100. Unfortunately, in the gay world, especially in Utah, there is not a legal structure that exists that allows a third party (i.e. the court system) to assist the couple in dissolving of their relationship and all that it contains fairly. There is no legal protection for either party. Because of this lack of legal structure in Utah, it has been recommended in the past that if a gay couple decided to have kids, the non-biological parent should be set up as a legal guardian and all would be well. In reality the legal guardianship does not protect the non-biological parent from losing visitation nor does it protect the biological parent from receiving financial support. I would not recommend that route to anyone. It was a poor recommendation. As a gay community, we will never move forward as equals if we try to take a document that is meant for the straight world and attempt to use it for legal protection. It is a very poor vehicle for equality.

    I have compassion for the non-biological parents who, for whatever reason whether it be because of their own doing or not, have lost visitation from the children. Unfortunately, this dilemma that we have in the gay community isn’t all about you. This dilemma is about the fact that neither you nor the biological parent has legal protection as parents. The non-biological parent can lose visitation at any time, and the biological parent might not ever see a dime of child support. Neither party is held accountable to anything. As a result, various decisions are made by both parties, and the outcome is what it is. As a community, if we want equal rights, then that means accountability on both sides meaning a visitation schedule is respected as well as child support from the non-biological parent. One thing to keep in mind, in the straight world, if the court deems the non-custodial parent to be unfit for visitation, the child support is still expected. Wages are garnished.

    In all of this, I can’t express enough of my disappointment and discouragement in the organization Traitor Jane. As I read their mission statement off of their website, the only feelings that come to mind are hate, anger, victimization, judgment, and divisiveness. As a gay community, it is critical that we are unified in our efforts of gay equality and ACCOUNTABILITY instead of dividing our community into victims and villains. As a community, we need to respect the complexity, privacy, and difficulty that exist during a breakup and not get lost in the details. We must see the forest amongst the trees, and remain on one team. I strongly disagree with any organization that contains the word “traitor” in its name as it completely contradicts the strength and unity that will be required by all of us in order to create positive change and establish equal rights and accountability for both parents after dissolution.

    Sincerely,

    Rebekah Harkness

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