Thursday, October 19, 2023
Courtney Joslin & Douglas NeJaime, Domestic Violence and Functional Parent Doctrines, 30 Virginia J. Soc. Pol'y & Law 67 (2023)
Today, approximately two-thirds of the states have a functional parent doctrine. Under these doctrines, a court can extend parental rights based on the conduct of forming a parental relationship with a child, regardless of whether the person is the child’s biological or adoptive parent. In recent years, these functional parent doctrines have garnered significant attention. Some critics fear that perpetrators of domestic violence will misuse functional parent doctrines to abuse, harass, and coerce their victims. These critics often imagine a paradigmatic case — one involving a former nonmarital different-sex partner who has a limited relationship with the child and uses the doctrine in a post-dissolution custody action as a way to continue to harass and control his former partner, the child’s mother.
Drawing upon relevant findings from our empirical study of all electronically available decisions issued in the last forty years applying functional parent doctrines, this Article sheds light on these fears by reporting what we know about allegations of domestic violence in cases decided under these doctrines. Ultimately, our findings reveal that the paradigmatic case that critics envision is quite rare. Former nonmarital different-sex partners constitute only a small share of the functional parent claim-ants. Instead, the population of claimants is characterized by diversity. Indeed, our study includes more than twice as many relatives — a group routinely overlooked in conversations about functional parent doctrines — than different-sex nonmarital partners. Even as allegations of domestic violence are more common in cases involving intimate partners, they are hardly a common feature. Moreover, even the small share of cases that would seem to be of most concern — those involving allegations of domestic violence against only the functional parent — rarely present the straightforward facts that structure objections to functional parent doctrines.
Rather than finding that functional parent doctrines are routinely used in ways that disrupt children’s lives, we find that the doctrines often function to provide stability and security for children. Our account raises questions about opposing functional parent doctrines altogether based on fears that male ex-partners will use the doctrines for abusive ends. Instead, given the important benefits of functional parent doctrines for children, we conclude that concerns about domestic violence, which are in-disputably serious and must be taken into consideration, should be addressed within functional parent doctrines, as some states recently have done.