How Does This Work? Will You See The Kids?

“Smommy.” It’s what Patty Burgess’ stepdaughters call her. “They came home one day and said, well, we can’t call you ‘Mommy’ but you are sort of our mommy. So they came up with ‘S-mommy,’ and ‘Smommy,'” said the 51-year old Realtor and radio talk show host from Bucks County, Penn.

And even though Burgess divorced their father nine years ago, she is still Smommy and a vital part of their lives thanks to what she says was “a divorce focused on making it OK for the kids.”

These children were in my life since they were ages 5 and 8, and they are now 22 and 25. They don’t remember much before me, and when we were divorcing, there was absolutely no question that I would be a part of their life, though I didn’t know at the time in what capacity,” she said. They tell me that they cannot imagine life without me, as that is their roots and what they know.”

But Burgess knows that luck was on her side. Like all stepparents, she understands that the courts have made no provisions for stepparents to have custodial rights to their non-biological, or non-bio, children. Many stepparents find that once the marriage is over so is their relationship with the children they helped parent.

The majority of the states do not recognize the rights of stepparents. A lot of divorce laws are lagging well behind our current societal needs,” said John Mayoue, a family lawyer based in Atlanta, Ga., active in stepparent issues and reversing the current archaic view of non-bio parents by the courts. Those laws are based in the ecclesiastical law of the 1600s.”

If I had not been able to see them or have any right to be in their lives after the divorce, I think I would have been a wreck. If there was a legal avenue to take, I would have. I would have done whatever I had to. I know that. Even if I didn’t win,” she said.

But chances are, with changes to state laws and test cases becoming more prevalent across the country, that Burgess might have won. States are introducing legislation which provides stepparents have the right to seek visitation and custody of step children, and, what is interesting, the concept of a stepparent having a financial duty to the child,” said Mayoue.

Traditionally, it all had to do with biology. If you are not biologically related to the child, then you have no right to visitation or custody, nor are you obligated to give financial support,” said the 53-year old lawyer, who has represented high-profile cases involving blended families. The courts are beginning to erase the fiction that we are only concerned about biological relationships between parents and children. It’s enormously important now, with as many as one in five families consisting of step children. That figure will be as many as one in three in the next few years.”

Kristen Forbriger was one of those statistics. Both of her divorced biological parents remarried when she was young, developed strong relationships with both of her stepparents. Then, her mother divorced again. My mother and step dad are divorced for three years, that was difficult because I think, on a lot of levels, people don’t expect it to be difficult,” said the 24-year old public relations executive from Philadelphia. My stepdad was a very big part of my life for 10 very important years “” middle school, high school and college.”

“Even though her mother wasn’t overly pleased with Forbriger’s decision to keep the close relationship she had with her step father, she didn’t stand in the way. It was difficult for her, but I still am very close to my step dad,” she said. “It would have been incredibly difficult for me, if I had been a minor and was told that he was out of my life. I don’t think that is the way it should be for step parents and children. They have a relationship with the person which is separate from the relationship they have with their biological parents. It’s just as important. Well, for me it was.”

And that is precisely what Mayoue says the courts are starting to take into consideration: the quality of the relationship between the child and the non-bio parent. “We are looking at a psychological profile of the relationship,” said Mayoue. What it is the child’s relationship with this person who is acting like a parent, doing everything a parent does, and, in many cases, spending much more time with the child than the biological parent.”

And in some families, statistics show that it is the stepparent who is doing the child rearing. According to data from a special report in 2003 of U.S. Census taken in 2000, 23 percent of children in the U.S. are being raised by a stepparent. That’s almost a quarter of all kids in this country,” said Lisa Daily, author of Fifteen Minutes of Shame” (Plume, April 2008), a novel with a protagonist who is a divorcing stepmother fighting for custody of her two non-bio children.

I did a lot of research while working on the book and interviewed a lot of step parents,” said the 40-year old author from Sarasota, Fla. In many cases, the stepparent has been the custodial psychological parent to the children. Very attached to the children and very much involved in their day-to-day activities and well-being. It’s about time that courts are looking at establishing just who the psychological parents are in these children’s lives.”

Citing data from the census, Daily says that the sheer number of children who might be affected by such decisions will demand the state court systems change. Between 30 and 40 percent of all stepchildren will go through the divorce of a custodial parent and a stepparent.” And apparently, we won’t have to wait long. Mayoue said changes are happening as we speak.”

Cases are on the rise challenging the archaic notions that stepparents should have no rights after a death or divorce from a spouse. In California, it is being tested in the courts. Some states are introducing legislation which provides stepparents have the same rights as a bio parent.”

The matter of stepparents is being handled like most traditional custody cases, he said, where the court evaluates what is in the best interest of the child. It is clearly not simply an enlightened view, it’s a practical view. And, I think most judges would candidly a step parent who steps up and says, ‘Look, I want to be part of this child’s life.'”

Which brings up the other side of the coin “” namely, the attitude of many stepparents which Mayoue says needs to be altered. Most stepparents simply assume they have no rights whatsoever, so a large part of this is that people have to become educated. Some of the activism needs to occur at the legislative level; some at the ground level,” he said. The definition of “parent” needs to change, for many reasons, not just because of stepparents. For instance, who is the parent of an artificially conceived child? Who is the parent in a same-sex couple? The test lies in what is in the best interest of the child. We as a society should embrace that.”

“Smommy” Burgess agrees. “You may not be [the biological] parent. But you can’t take the heart and history out of these relationships without doing a lot of damage,” said Burgess.