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Court Bars Divorced Mom’s 9-Year Partner from Staying Overnight When Kids are Home

Matt Coles,
Former Deputy Legal Director and Director of Center for Equality
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December 24, 2008

I’m writing to tell you about a very important parenting case that is now in the Court of Appeals in Tennessee. Here’s the story.

Angel Chandler and Joseph Baker divorced ten years ago. They had two children, a daughter, now 13 and a son, now 15. They had joint custody and visitation with both children. Ms. Chandler began seeing the woman who became her partner nine years ago, and Mr. Baker married the woman who is now his wife in 2003.

Earlier this year, Ms. Chandler and Mr. Baker went to family court to get approval for a modification of their parenting plan. Following usual procedure, the court ordered an evaluation of both homes. The evaluation said that Ms. Chandler’s partner was a positive influence, and had a “parent-like” relationship with both of the children.

Nevertheless, the court put what Tennessee law calls a “paramour” restriction in its order approving the new parenting plan. The order barred Ms. Chandler’s partner from their home on any night when either of the children are there. Since Ms. Chandler’s daughter spends most of her time there, that meant that Ms. Chandler’s partner had to move out of their home.

To maintain some semblance of their life but comply with this ridiculous order, Ms. Chandler quit her job, and she and her partner moved to North Carolina, where they could maintain two households. Ms. Chandler’s partner now sleeps in the second household whenever one of the children is present–which is most nights.

Ms. Chandler has a very clear constitutional right to raise her children as she thinks best. And like the court-appointed expert, she thinks it would be best if her children could be in a home with both their mother and their mother’s partner. Ms. Chandler also has a very clear constitutional right to love and have a relationship with another adult.

The courts can’t interfere with either of those rights without a very good reason, and there is no good reason here, where the court’s own expert recommended that this family be left alone.

I wish I could say that this case was a quirk, but orders like these are not at all uncommon, particularly in the South. Judges often deny that they are discriminatory, saying that they apply equally to unmarried gay people and unmarried heterosexuals. In a state like Tennessee, which constitutionally bans marriage for same-sex couples, that would qualify as a bad joke if families weren’t being broken up. We hope to convince the Tennessee Court of Appeals to strike this order down, and give us the kind of strong decision we can use to start getting rid of similar orders throughout the region.

As always, I’ll keep you posted.

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