Same-sex guardianship at issue in Monroe case

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

A legal battle involving a child custody case that could clarify the legal definition of parenthood is developing in a Monroe courtroom.

The case involves a lesbian couple from Lambertville and their two young children who were conceived through in vitro fertilization. At issue is equitable parenting for couples who are not biologically connected to their children. The women, who have split up, became co-parents before the legalization of gay marriage in the United States last June in a landmark decision that involved a Hazel Park same-sex couple.

At a hearing held Friday in the Monroe County Court the judge appointed an attorney to represent the children in the case. The child custody case pits Jennifer Zunk, a 51-year-old teacher, against her former partner Carin Hopps, a 47-year-old medical doctor.

“This impacts heterosexual couples as well and it’s putting their lives of these parents and their children in jeopardy without law on the books,” said Dana Nessel, the attorney for Zunk.

Hopps was implanted with a donor egg that had been inseminated with donor sperm through in vitro fertilization to conceive the couple’s son, now 5. The daughter, now 7, was conceived through in vitro using Hopps’ egg and a sperm donor.

While the couple did not legally marry, they did enter in a civil union and lived as a married couple, Nessel said. Zunk and Hopps were known to their children as “Mom” and “Other Mom,” and later as “Teacher Mom” and “Doctor Mom.” Zunk was responsible for the majority of the family’s duties including childcare, bill-paying, grocery-shopping, doctor visits for the children as well as driving the children to school each day.

In January 2011, Zunk was given a limited guardianship of the children.

The couple decided to end their relationship in October 2014 although they lived together until the following February. Hopps filed court papers to terminate Zunk’s guardianship of both of the children in January. A month later, Zunk filed a complaint seeking joint legal and physical custody of the children as well as parenting time and child support.

A Monroe judge is being asked to hear oral arguments in the case to determine if the court should honor the women’s requests. The next hearing date is in early May.

Legal observers say the case is important because of a legal gray area with same-sex couples: how to handle custody cases involving children born before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriages.

Nessel said, “We are in uncharted territory for several reasons now, though.”

“How can you deny a finding of equitable parenthood to our client when, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, they were unconstitutionally denied the right to marry?” she asked Friday before the hearing.

Nessel said in the case of the former couple’s son, “How is Carin any more a parent to the couple’s son than Jennifer is when the Michigan Child Custody Act requires a person to be a parent either though nature (biology) or adoption? Neither woman has a biological relationship to that child, nor has either woman adopted him. Hence, under the law as it currently stands, the boy has no parents. If the court terminates the guardianship of Jennifer today, the boy has no parent and, therefore, becomes a ward of the state.”

The case also has ramifications for children conceived through in vitro fertilization because of a lack of laws regulating the use of such procedures.

“In short, it’s the wild, wild west out here,” said Nessel. “Michigan’s Legislature refuses to recognize technological advancements in this field, yet thousands of people have children through ART (artificial reproductive technology) in this state every year.”

Nessel also was co-counsel for the April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, the local couple who challenged Michigan’s adoption code and later Michigan’s gay marriage ban.

Attempts to reach Hopps’ attorney were unsuccessful.

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