Appeals court rules in favor of mother, partner in child-visitation issue

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled that a trial-court judge was wrong to impose a “paramour provision” that barred a woman’s lesbian partner of more than 10 years from being in their home during the mother’s overnight visits with her children.

The three-judge panel ruled unanimously in favor of Angel Chandler, who was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. This is the second time the appeals court has truck down a trial-court ruling that used the “paramour provision” against Chandler, according to the ACLU — in September 2009 the appeals court ordered the trial court to reconsider, and after a March 2010 hearing the lower court decided to impose the restriction despite the appeals court’s finding that the record is devoid of any evidence whatsoever to support the finding that a paramour provision is in the best interest of the children.”

“We are relieved that the appeals court has recognized that restrictions like the one imposed on Angel Chandler can unfairly harm families raised by same-sex couples,” said James Esseks, Director of the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Hopefully such a stern rebuke from the appeals court will send a loud and clear message to judges across the state that these kinds of restrictions are unduly burdensome on lesbian and gay parents who are just as capable of being good parents but don't have the option of marrying.”

The appeals court also noted that there was evidence showing that the paramour clause was contrary to the best interests of the children, including evidence showing that the partner interacted with the children in a “positive and supportive manner” and that the partner “appears to be emotionally stable and capable of providing appropriate support and nurturing to the children and to [the Mother].”

The "”paramour provision” barring Chandler's partner from her home during visitation with her children was first imposed in May 2008, after Chandler and her former husband appeared before the Gibson County Chancery Court to modify their parenting plan for custody and visitation of their two teenaged children, according to the ACLU. Despite a court-ordered psychological evaluation of all the parties finding Chandler's partner was a positive influence on the teenagers, the trial judge imposed the restriction, claiming that he was required to do so under state law. After the appeals court made it clear that there was no such requirement under state law, the trial judge imposed the restriction again in March 2010.

“We could not be more pleased with today's ruling from the Court of Appeals,” said Brian S. Faughnan, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Tennessee. “For the second time now, this court has made it clear that custody and visitation decisions should be based on what's best for the children, and that can mean having the love and support of a lesbian or gay step-parent.”

The restriction caused a huge strain on Chandler's relationship and finances. Chandler and her partner relocated to North Carolina, where they lived in a duplex that allowed them to abide by the order. Eventually this arrangement became too costly, and Chandler had to stay with a relative when she visited with her children, according to the ACLU.

“Working and raising a family is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but this restriction really put a strain on all of us,” said Chandler. “Hopefully, we can now put this nightmare behind us.”

Lawyers on the case include Christine Sun, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project, Tricia Herzfeld of the ACLU of Tennessee, and Brian S. Faughnan and Lucian Pera of Adams and Reese, LLP. A copy of today's decision can be found online here, while additional information about the case is available here.

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