Children With Three Parents? A History of Multi-Parentage

Poly families are seeking, and winning, recognition.

Posted Feb 22, 2021

How on earth can a child have three parents? Does triple parentage sound crazy? Haven’t we all been raising children in monogamous, church-sanctioned, lifelong two-person unions ever since Adam and Eve conceived their first child 7,000 years ago? I’m kidding, obviously, but the legal concept of a three-parent kid sounds like a novelty. It’s not, and we’ve been working our way in this direction for a while.

Let’s start with a doozy of a problem: extra-marital desire with a kid involved. A woman named April Divilbliss developed feelings for a man (Chris Littrell) who was not her husband (Shane Divilbliss). This sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? The usual script is that April would either have to quash her feelings and carry on, or that she and Chris would have an affair, and if Shane found out, the options would either be divorce or that she renounce the affair and do couples counseling

None of that happened. What happened was better, and worse. April told Shane the honest truth, and Shane made an amazing concession: April could keep her relationship with him while Chris moved into their home and also had a relationship with her. Some people might say that the husband was obviously weak to tolerate such a scenario. Polyamorists would say that he showed her tremendous love and demonstrated that love is not a zero-sum game. What made his wife happier might cost him nothing, if he got over the jealousy. In fact, your lover’s joy can be your joy. To put this in the language I’ve already used with my three-year-old, it’s not like you can run out of hugs.

Ian Jenkins
The author and newborn son, Parker
Source: Ian Jenkins

But it ended poorly. The child’s paternal grandparent (Shane wasn’t the bio dad) sought custody, and a court agreed with the argument that polyamory could endanger the “morals or health” of April’s daughter and took April’s child from her and her partners and gave the child to the grandparents.

Courts haven't been huge fans of throuples. But there are circumstances in which they have recognized three-parent arrangements. And they make plenty of sense once you look at the details. Under what circumstances would a three-parent scenario not spook an American family court? Consider this:

  • Alaska: A single mom grew ill, arranged the adoption of her child by a couple, but understandably wished to remain a legal parent until her death.

Or this:

  • Several states: A heterosexual relationship produces a child. The relationship ends, and someone remarries. The step-parent also becomes a legal parent. Makes sense, right? The step-parent might be a closer guardian and educator and familial figure to the child than the biological parent. 

Everyone reading those scenarios can see that they’re not remotely threatening to the American vision of family. Perhaps in 1940, they might have, but modern society recognizes that people divorce and remarry. Consider this scenario, which is another known way a kid could end up with three parents:

  • A lesbian couple and a close male friend, serving as a sperm donor, conceive children. The bio-dad remains close and caring. He’s recognized as a parent within the family and is later made a legal parent when a court agrees that he should not remain a legal nobody to the child if everyone involved believes that he’s much more than a sperm donor.

This is getting more complicated. We’ve brought in homosexuality, which frightens some courts. But the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across America in 2015. Another decision (penned by Neil Gorsuch) prevented employment discrimination on the basis of sex (and therefore sexual orientation because firing someone because of who they’re partnered with requires discriminating on the basis of that employee’s sex). These decisions mean that courts everywhere are going to start treating gay, lesbian, and bisexual citizens more fairly because they won’t want to blatantly disregard precedent. Why not recognize the bio dad? The family has the kid standing there in court saying “Make my dad my legal dad,” (or as happened in one case, “recognize my second mom, not just my bio-mom and sperm donor dad”) basically. 

Photo Courtesy of Ian Jenkins
The author with his partners and son
Source: Photo Courtesy of Ian Jenkins

What freaks out courts more than that? Polyamory. But progressive courts have begun to recognize already existing realities (that three consenting adults are in a relationship and parenting) by making poly families legal parents. I, and my two partners, seem to be the first. In 2017, we were awarded triple parentage on the birth certificate of a child yet to be born by surrogacy (contrast: a kid testifying in court they want their third parent recognized). And in 2018, two women involved with a man achieved a similar result in a Canadian court. "This must be recognized as a reality and not as a detriment to the best interests of the child," said the judge in that case. 

While I was researching this topic, all these cases seemed a little out of the ordinary. Even to me, one of three dads in a poly family. But then I realized that I have three parents myself. My biological parents divorced when I was too young to remember the marriage. I grew up with my father and stepmother and visited my mother regularly during elementary school. But my stepmother wasn’t some stranger in the home. She was one of my parents. She helped nurture my love of reading and writing. She might not have been a legal parent, but that didn’t change our family. 

This just goes to show, not all families follow the Leave It To Beaver format. Some are nontraditional or chosen families. Denying legal rights to the parents involved doesn’t change the relationship, or the kids’ reality, except to make it worse. Recognizing only two parents keeps things simpler if a relationship ends, but it also tells a kid their family is “less than,” denies the kid important benefits like an automatic inheritance from all three parents. 

It’s crucial for family law to catch up with reality and recognize nontraditional and chosen families. 

References

Divilbiss, April, “PolyFamily Child Custody Case Ends After 2 Year Battle…” Polyamorysociety.org, accessed October 25, 2017, http://www.polyamorysociety.org/Divilbiss_Families_Case_Ends.html.

Associated Press, “Modern Family: More Courts Allowing Three Parents of One Child,” Nbcnews.com, accessed May 19, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/modern-family-more-courts-allowing-three-parents-one-child-n774031.

McDonald, Michael. “3 adults in polyamorous relationship declared legal parents by N. L. court.” Cbc.ca, accessed 2/21/21.  

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/polyamourous-relationship-three-parents-1.4706560

Peltz, Jennifer, “Courts and ‘Tri-parenting’: A State-By-State Look,” usnews.com accessed October 20, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/louisiana/articles/2017-06-18/courts-and-tri-parenting-a-state-by-state-look.