The forgotten parents January 18, 2011
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PAULA FAGAN’S partner was working abroad when their eldest, asthmatic
son became ill. She brought him to the GP who advised her to take him
to the emergency department straight away.
“All the way in I was
so worried that I was not going to be able to sign a form for his
treatment,” says Paula, who as the partner of his biological mother is
the boy’s other parent, though she has no legal recognition of her
relationship with him.
“In the end I just didn’t tell them. He was
calling me ‘Mummy’ so they didn’t pass any heed, but it was very
stressful for me, which was ridiculous because I am his other primary
carer.” At the hospital X-rays showed the boy had pneumonia.
parenting for same-sex couples is no different from that of most other
families – until questions such as parental consent arise. Generally
people are very positive, says Paula, who lives in Dalkey, Co Dublin,
with her partner, Denise Charlton, and their two boys, aged four and
“Once people get to know you, they realise you are a parent
but you have that underlying anxiety,” says Paula, who is the biological
mother of the younger boy. For instance, in the older boy’s Montessori
school, where parents have to sign forms, “it is at their discretion
whether they let me sign”.
Paula and Denise were in their thirties
when they moved in together eight years ago and both were keen to have
children. As Denise was the eldest, she went first. One child was
conceived with sperm from a known donor – he and his partner are both
“friendly uncles” to the two boys – and an anonymous sperm donor was
used for the other.
But Paula is frustrated that under law she and Denise are not treated
the same as heterosexual parents in a similar situation. “We planned
the pregnancies together; we went through the treatment together. It is
like any other opposite sex couple who may use donor sperm if there are
fertility issues but then the male partner is recognised as the parent.”
the civil partnership legislation that came into force on January 1st
recognises same-sex couples for matters such as tax, pensions and
inheritance, it does not acknowledge they might have children.
of existing family law were replicated for the civil partnership
legislation but any mention of dependent children was deleted, says
Moninne Griffith of the campaigning group Marriage Equality. For
example, the section that deals with dissolution of civil partnership –
the equivalent of divorce for heterosexual couples – covers maintenance
of adult partners but there is no provision for dependent children.
civil partnership does nothing to change the parenting status of a
non-biological parent, it is encouraging that the Law Reform Commission
has recommended that civil partners should be able to apply for
guardianship (or, as it will be called in the future, “parental
responsibility”), says Sandra Irwin-Gowran of the Gay and Lesbian
Civil partnership has a few spin-off positive
effects for the family, she points out. For example, being able to share
tax credits may make it more affordable for one partner to stay at home
full- or part-time. Also, given that pensions will pass to the civil
partner, this will provide important financial security to a couple with
children where one partner dies. “These might be considered small
benefits,” she adds, “but for the individuals in question that could
make an enormous difference.”
As far as marriage equality is concerned, the debate is not about
whether gay or lesbian people should be allowed to have children. “What
we are saying is they do have kids and what we are campaigning for is
that these kids have the exact same rights as anybody else,” says
There is legal opinion that the civil partnership
legislation might be challenged in Europe as being in contravention of
the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “It stigmatises children
of gay and lesbian parents in the same way that children born to
unmarried parents were, prior to the Status of Children Act,” she
Last year, Marriage Equality published
Voices of Children , in which young people aged 18-24 with gay
parents talked about their childhood experiences. Their message to
people who oppose gay marriage with the argument “you have to think of
the children”, was “we are the children and we have grown up perfectly
Schools with a liberal ethos are regarded as crucial in
supporting children of gay parents. Paula and Denise took a lot of care
in researching pre-school groups and schools, to minimise the chances of
their sons encountering prejudice. They had to be sure that staff were
not just okay with their type of family but happy to embrace it.
took a while and I came across people who were just not aware that
there are lesbian-headed families. At best it was that people did not
know what to say and that’s okay, but I had a few instances where people
were not great about it.”
The first Montessori school their son
attended was “brilliant” and he dutifully went home with two cards for
Mother’s Day. They are equally happy with the Montessori to which he
moved last September
Although he is only four, the fact that he
has same sex parents has already come up among his peers in the
neighbourhood. “When new kids move in, at first they are curious and, as
they get to know us, ‘two Mums’ nearly becomes a badge of honour,” says
Paula and Denise are not planning to become civil
partners. “For us the primary concern is around the children and the
recognition of our relationship to them, so that won’t be helped by
civil partnership,” Paula points out. “It is actually kind of insulting
because of the way they treated the children in it.”
But she is hopeful that it will not be too long before they will be able to get married here, having been heartened by
The Irish Times opinion poll last September which found that
just over two-thirds of people (67 per cent) believed gay couples should
be allowed to marry. Although just under half (46 per cent) said that
gay couples should be allowed to adopt children, she thinks this is
“I think the public are ready,” she adds, “but the politicians lack the political will and courage around it.”
the research shows that children raised by gay parents are not at any
kind of disadvantage. In fact, some of the research shows we are at a
bit of an advantage'
'Irish society is more tolerant than some people think'
Their family life is the same as everybody else’s,
Gráinne Courtney and Orla Howard are at pains to stress, “except for the
“For some reason people think being gay parents is different to
being straight parents,” says Orla, sitting at a long table in the
L-shaped kitchen-dining area of their semi-detached home in Drumcondra,
But they go through rough and smooth times like most families
and their teenage daughters can be “a pain in the ass” like most
Gráinne is the biological mother of Clare O’Connell (19) and
Daire Courtney (16) and “came out” as a gay woman 11 years ago, three
years after she split up with their father. She lost her first lesbian
partner to breast cancer and then, eight years ago, Orla moved in.
We speak on a Saturday morning just after Daire has been dropped
at Dublin airport to return to boarding school in Costa Rica, where she
is on a scholarship at the United World College. (It is having a sister
at school in Costa Rica which, Clare later suggests, is the only
“bizarre” thing about her family life.) “I had no conception of what a
big deal it was getting involved with parenting children,” admits Orla.
Having grown up with eight siblings in west Clare, “I thought it was
going to be a very small step but it was a much bigger thing”. It took a
while for her to adapt, “but it has been fantastic for me – I always
wanted children in my life”.
The girls see themselves as having three parents and can work
that to their advantage. “When the kids want something, or particularly
want to do something that they think I might not let them do, they very
often text her or ring her, rather than ringing me,” says Gráinne. “They
think she is an easier touch than I am.”
It is clear that the question of civil partnership is a bit of a
dilemma. “We do need it but we don’t want it,” explains Gráinne. They
would be glad of formal recognition of their relationship for tax,
pension and property purposes.They are very unhappy that civil
partnership gives no rights to the non-birth mother over the children,
or vice versa. With the girls’ “fantastic” father very involved in their
lives, what Gráinne and Orla would like to see is “second parent
Gráinne points out how Orla has lived with her daughters for the
past eight years “and to have her rights fully extinguished if anything
happened to me would be absolutely awful. It is unlikely because of the
ages of our children but for people with small children it is a huge
If a birth mother in a lesbian couple who had used donor sperm
died, her family could exercise legal rights to custody of the child,
while the co-parent would be regarded as a “stranger” in law. Not only
does civil partnership not do anything for children in regard to
recognising their relationship with their non-biological mother but, in
certain circumstances, it could have negative repercussions.
If Gráinne and Orla became civil partners and Gráinne were to
die first without making a will, two-thirds of her estate would go to
Orla, the remainder to the daughters (although the daughters could
contest that in court). But on Orla’s death, everything she might will
Clare and Daire would be subject to inheritance or gift tax after a
threshold of just €20,740 (on 2010 rates), compared to a threshold of
€414,799 if they had inherited directly from Gráinne or if they were
Orla’s step children through marriage.
For Clare, a second-year medical student at Trinity, the
introduction of marriage for same-sex couples would mean that everybody
would be “forced to recognise us as a family, whether they truly believe
we are or not. We believe we are and anybody who has met our family
could not say it was anything else but a family.”
She is grateful for the way she was brought up and thinks that
she and her sister are more open-minded than many of their peers. “All
the research goes to show that children raised by gay parents are not at
any kind of disadvantage, psychologically, socially or developmentally.
In fact, some of the research shows we are at a bit of an advantage.
“Only in the past two years have I identified with myself as
being a child of a gay parent. I just thought of myself as an ordinary
It was when she became aware of how many rights Gráinne and Orla
were being denied, that she realised how their family is part of a
marginalised group in society.
Vivian Cummins and his partner, Erney Breytenbach, felt they could
provide a stable, loving home to a child and while adoption as a gay
couple is not possible in Ireland, fostering is.
When they applied to be assessed as potential foster carers in
2004, they thought they might encounter prejudice as a same-sex couple.
But they did not come across any animosity – then or since.
“When we had our first short-term foster child, we got a lot of
support from neighbours with help where they could and toys. It was
really wonderful,” says Breytenbach, a former South African diplomat.
After two short-term placements, they have had a boy living with
them in south Co Kildare for the past five years, who is now 11. “It
has been a very good experience for us. We have a very exceptional child
at the moment.”
The couple, who were married in South Africa in 2009, are
applying for further rights as carers of the boy (such as being able to
sign for medical care, a passport or school outings), which all foster
parents are entitled to do after five years. They can apply for these
equally as a fostering couple.
In response to a query on the percentage of foster carers who
are same-sex couples, a spokeswoman for the Health Service Executive
says it recruits foster parents based on their parenting capacity and
does not discriminate or collect data on the sexual orientation of
In summing up what has been a wholly positive experience,
Breytenbach says: “I think Irish society is actually more tolerant than
some people think when it comes to social issues.”
It's interesting how supposedly extreme situations are put forward in this article as a reason for granting guardianship to non-parents. Paula Fagan's partner above was out of the country, she had to bring her partner's son for hospital treatment and yet she finishes the story by stating that the hospital never even looked for her signature for treatment of the child. Are extreme, highly unusual situations (which turn out not to be extreme situations) now the guideline by which we must grant non-parents equal legal standing to parents? Does anyone truly believe that this hospital would have refused critical treatment for the boy based on not having a guardians signature for treatment? Once again we are asked to suspend logic and reason to shoehorn in legislation which will fundamentally undermine the legal position of all parents in this country.
Further on in the article you will see how one of the sons was concieved "with sperm from a known donor – he and his partner are both
“friendly uncles” to the two boys". It's amazing the utopian picture painted here, a father now becomes an uncle and everyone's a winner! But what happens if the situation changes and the father realises he is a father and wants to exercise this role? The supposedly utopian world, where a non-parent is a parent and a father is an uncle, instantly shatters as can be seen from this case
We are always given the sweetened sad story which tries to alter the simple truth of families i.e. a child is concieved by one mother and one father. Only a mother and a father can concieve a child, these are the child's parents...and every Child has the right to know and be cared for by both of it's parents.
You cannot possibly airbrush fathers out of the picture and pretend that non-parents are parents, as our Law Reform Commision is trying it's damndest to do. Children themselves are naturally curious as to their origins and their family heritage, this a right which should not be denied to them. However much it is denied by all of the right-on supposedly thinking classes, the truth will always out in the end.