A state appeals court has upheld a Suffolk Family Court decision finding that two women who are divorcing are the legal parents of their children, including the one who did not give birth to them.
The unanimous decision for the Appellate Division’s Second Department, written by Justice Sheri Roman, finds that Kelly Steagall, 47, now of Arizona, has the right to seek visitation of the children born during her marriage to Farah Martin, 40, who grew up in Nesconset.
As in last year’s ruling by Suffolk Family Court Judge Deborah Poulos, Roman noted that the issue is affected by many factors, including the validity of California law in New York, whether a sperm donor who was a friend to the couple has any parental responsibilities and how the two women raised the children when they were together.
Steagall and Martin had three kids together. Steagall gave birth to the first one, and Martin carried the other two.
The couple later moved to Long Island and then separated. Martin went to Family Court seeking to deny Steagall’s parental rights to the younger two children, arguing that because Steagall never adopted them, an informal artificial insemination process left the children’s legal parentage in doubt.
Roman’s decision said that makes no difference.
“The parties made an informed, mutual decision to conceive the subject children via artificial insemination and to raise them together, first while in a registered domestic partnership in California and, later, while legally married in that state,” Roman wrote. “Additionally, the children were given [Steagall’s] surname, [Steagall] was named as a parent on each birth certificate and the parties raised the children from the time of their births ... until the parties separated.”
Steagall said she is grateful for the decision, but worries the protracted legal battle and her inability to see her children regularly has damaged her relationship with them.
“There was borderline parental alienation going on, and I feel that’s still going on,” she said. “My kids will barely speak to me on the phone.”
Steagall’s appellate attorney, Christopher Chimeri of Hauppauge, said the ruling now enables Steagall to have a fair fight for visitation. He said courts are going to see more such cases.
“The law is, in effect, catching up to how families are formed and maintained,” he said.
Martin’s attorney, Sari Friedman of Garden City, said she doubted her client would appeal further. She said she understood the court’s goal in maintaining Steagall’s parental rights, but said it got there the wrong way.
“What they wrote is not good law,” Friedman said. In particular, she said the court’s refusal to allow Martin to seek child support from the sperm donor could have unforeseen ramifications for all women in bad marriages who have children out of wedlock.
Steagall said she hoped her case could prevent future battles.
“As unfortunate as the situation is, I’m happy that some good came out of my rough situation and could help families in the future,” she said.