Failure to Adopt Robs Father of Custody of His Infant Son

Father kissing his infant son

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Dr. Jonathan Sporn found himself “falling deeper and deeper in love” with his infant son, Lincoln, after the boy’s July 2012 birth. But due to legal circumstances and the tragic suicide of his biological mother, Lincoln has been in a foster home for more than a month and isn’t likely to leave anytime soon.

Sporn, a pharmaceuticals executive living in Manhattan, struck up a romance with prominent attorney Leann Leutner in 2010. Both were divorced, and as their relationship grew, neither proposed marriage. But that didn’t keep them from desiring a family, and after some struggles with fertility, the couple managed to conceive a child with the help of an anonymous sperm donor.

The proud parents’ joy faded quickly as Leutner, who had a history of psychological issues, experienced severe postpartum depression. She was hospitalized twice in late 2012 after a pair of suicide attempts. When she left the hospital the second time, she took Lincoln and moved into a new apartment in New Jersey. About two weeks later, she leapt to her death from the 14th floor of her new building.

Sporn learned of his girlfriend’s death when New Jersey social workers called to inform him that Lincoln was in their custody.

 

Laws Favor Nature, Not Nurture

Despite the fact that Sporn raised Lincoln as his own son and produced a document designating him as guardian, he is fighting an uphill battle in family court. He never initiated a formal adoption of Lincoln, and because he is not biologically related, New York law says that he has no rights to the child.

“He is just a stranger in the eyes of the law,” said New York adoption attorney Lisa Goldberg. “He has no legal standing. He’s like a babysitter.”

Complicating matters further, Susan Sylvester, Leutner’s sister, is also petitioning for custody. Goldberg said that Sylvester’s biological connection to Lincoln means more under New York law than Sporn’s months of diaper changing and bedtime stories.

“The law will always weigh more heavily on the side of the biological family,” she said. “If they had been married, Sporn would have a little bit better standing in family court. But if he had adopted the baby, there would be no question about his custody.”

 

Adoption is the Solution

Some have suggested that Sporn’s case is an example of laws that fail to reflect the realities of modern family constructs. Michigan attorney Timothy P. Flynn wrote in the Oakland Press that the case “illustrates how, despite the oft-progressive status of our modern family laws, and the family law bar, there remains a stubborn bias in the family court that favors the bloodlines of a traditional family unit.”

While state legislatures are free to take up the issue and modernize their laws, parents in New York have little excuse for getting into such a mess in the first place.

“In New York, adoptions are usually simple, inexpensive and quick,” said Goldberg. “If you don’t adopt your partner’s child, your rights and responsibilities aren’t protected, and the child isn’t protected with your care, either. The responsibility to your child mandates that you pursue adoption.”

There are other legal remedies through which non-biological parents can attempt to establish custody rights, such as parenting plans and wills, but Goldberg warns that all of these could result in a child going into state custody in circumstances like Sporn’s.

“Why get to the point where the child has been taken by the state and you have to fight to get him back?” she asked. “If you’re parenting and you’re bonded with your child, adopt.”

What do you think of Dr. Sporn’s predicament? Should New York’s family law give him more clout in court? Let us know in the comments section below.

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