Bill would expand ‘parent’ definition

Posted April 17, 2009, at 9:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Sen. Joe Perry says he knows a parent when he sees one, and the way the Department of Health and Human Services defines a parent needs to be changed.

“This deals with kinship care,” the Bangor Democrat told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “Specifically, this deals with a situation where someone has been the father, acted as the father for years but it turns out they are not the biological father of that child.”

Kinship care is in both state and federal law and gives preference in custody matters to have a child placed with a relative. The legal definition includes biological parents as well as adoptive parents, but does not address the situation that faced Derald Cochran of Bangor.

He sought a kinship preference in maintaining custody of his granddaughter, only to find out, after a blood test, that he was not the biological father of the daughter he had raised from birth and that his granddaughter was not a blood relative.

“You can only imagine the emotional pain this has caused,” Cochran told the panel. “I am the only father my daughter has known and the only grandfather my granddaughter has known.”

He told the committee his daughter is impaired and receives disability payments and is not able to care for her daughter, and that is why he was granted custody. He said DHHS turned his world upside down about two years ago when the father of his daughter’s child was able to convince authorities to order a blood test to determine paternity and then was able to get custody of the young girl.

“I know what a father is,” Perry said in an interview, “And [Cochran] has been this girl’s father for 22 years and is her father. The law needs to recognize that.”

Members of the Judiciary Committee were clearly concerned that current law does not recognize that parenthood is not simply defined by a blood relationship. Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, noted that the current law does recognize that a person not related by blood can be a child’s parent. For instance, the state considers adoptive parents as having the same kinship relationship as biological parents, he said.

“Maybe we can address this problem by just changing the definition,” he said.

Perry acknowledged that his bill, as written, does not address the issue and told the committee he is hoping they can fashion language to address the situation. He said what he wants to accomplish is a recognition in the kinship provisions of Maine law that parental relationships exist, despite not having been formalized such as in an adoption.

“I don’t know about other situations like this one of my constituent, but I am sure there are some out there,” Perry said.

Virginia Marriner of DHHS said the agency would be willing to work with the committee to come up with a definition of parent that would include situations like the Cochran family. She said “fictive kin” is recognized in rules but not in statute.

That term is used to refer to individuals that are unrelated by either birth or marriage, but who have an emotionally significant relationship with another individual that take on the characteristics of a family relationship.

“We would be willing to look at changes to the extent it does not impact federal regulations,” she said.

Marriner said a federal law adopted last fall is aimed at encouraging placement of children with relatives and that rules are still being developed to implement the law. She said Maine’s policy has been to encourage kinship care and has had some success.

“The Department has been working very hard to do placement with relatives,” she said. “We are up to 30 percent in some districts. We are placing with relatives over 50 percent of new children coming into care.”

Both Perry and Cochran said they were encouraged that the Department was willing to work with the committee to draft language to modify the kinship care law.

“I knew when I started this two years ago that it would not help me,” Cochran said Friday in a telephone interview. “I just want to make sure no one else goes through what I and my family have gone through.”

A work session on the bill has not been scheduled.

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