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What Makes a Parent?

Starting in the mid-nineties, some U.S. states began recognizing a new legal category: the de-facto parent. This usually defined someone who had been given permission, by a legal parent, to share parental duties; who had lived with, and bonded with, a child; and who had assumed some of the financial burdens of parenthood. This person would not necessarily be granted full parental rights but would at least have standing to argue, in the face of a legal parent’s objection, that a child’s best interests would be served by a continued relationship.

New York couldn’t easily follow suit. Meg Canby, a matrimonial attorney at Blank Rome, a large law firm, told me that Alison D. was a “terrible ruling that had the imprimatur of precedent, leaving the state with a higher bar.” In 1995, the state started allowing unmarried people—including same-sex partners—to become second parents through adoption. In Canby’s view, this was “a salve on the wounds of Alison D.,” but it wasn’t equality: most heterosexual parents didn’t have to get around this bureaucratic obstacle.


Yet to the consternation of many Alison D. stuck, even after New York enacted same-sex marriage, in 2011. Meg Canby said that lawyers like her were “waiting and praying” for a case that looked something like Brooke S.B.

In 2015, Canby spoke on a panel about family-law issues affecting gay clients. She recalled that, afterward, Brett Figlewski, of LeGal, the L.G.B.T. bar association of Greater New York, “chased me down the street and got me into a Starbucks, and said, ‘Meg, I think we’ve got the case.’ ” Canby went on, “I sat with him, reading the trial, turning over the pages, looking at the facts, and just saying, ‘This could be the one.’ ”

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"What Makes a Parent?" by Ian Parker was published in The New Yorker on May 15, 2017.