Gay father wins custody ruling

Montgomery County man gains the right to live with his partner and raise son

March 29, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL AND NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | ANDREA F. SIEGEL AND NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTERS

A gay Maryland father who was forced to choose between custody of his son and living with his male partner has won court permission to reunite the household.

On Monday, a Montgomery County judge ended the four-year-old cohabitation ban set in place by an Alexandria, Va., court. The 2002 ruling awarded custody to the father, contingent upon his partner moving out. The couple moved to Maryland, which is considered friendlier to same-sex couples.

"To me it is just horrible, shocking, that they had to go to these lengths to live together," said Susan Silber, one of the lawyers for Karl Ulf Hedberg, the father. "What is quite amazing is the family persevered for this long."

The son is now 13.

Legal experts say the case will reverberate through the gay community nationwide.

"There are many other families who are living under the burden of these discriminatory restrictions and many other children that are being hurt, and I am sure we are going to see more cases like this one," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in Washington, part of Hedberg's legal team.

Jane Murphy, a family law professor and former director of the family law clinic at the University of Baltimore, said that in the past decade or so the legal landscape for gay parents has changed in Maryland.

"The rule as it has evolved in Maryland is that that kind of arrangement is not automatically ruled out," Murphy said. "You would have to show a nexus between the father's living arrangement and harm to the child."

Maryland courts are supposed to base custody and visitation decisions on what is in the best interest of the child. Virginia judges may condition child custody on barring a live-in lover, lawyers say.

"It's very awkward to go through a divorce, and it's compounded when one of the parents enters into a same-sex relationship," said Mathew D. Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, the conservative public interest law firm that represented the mother previously.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge William J. Rowan III's ruling came after Hedberg presented evidence to show that the Virginia order had harmed his son, turning a two-parent home into a one-parent home, with attendant hardships.

The mother, Annica Madelaine Detthow, did not attend the hearing, presented no evidence and had no lawyer there, Silber said.

Neither Detthow nor Hedberg could be reached yesterday.

Hedberg and the boy's mother separated in 1996 in Virginia. She moved to Florida in 2000.

After the Alexandria, Va., judge's 2002 ruling, Hedberg and his partner, Blaise Delahoussaye, sold their house and moved to separate apartments in Maryland. Hedberg tried in 2004 to get a Montgomery County judge to open the custody issue based on the child's new circumstances. The court refused.

He challenged that. Last year, over the Liberty Counsel's claim that Hedberg was forum-shopping, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals handed Hedberg a win. It said that the changed circumstances could be the result of the prior decision.

The father rented a Rockville apartment because on one income, he could not afford a house, Silber said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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