Court: Parental Autonomy Cannot Be Transferred to Third-Party

Sometimes things stand in the way of parents’ ability to raise their children – financial distress, illness, substance abuse – to name a few. When this happens, custody can be turned over to someone else: a grandparent, another relative or any trusted adult that has lived with the child. These people are known as “psychological” parents or de facto parents. If, after reading the following, you need a Hunterdon County lawyer that can assist you with a similar situation regarding parental rights, contact The Rotolo Law Firm, located in Lebanon, NJ, which is in close proximity to Clinton, NJ and Flemington, NJ.

By definition, a psychological parent is an adult with whom a child has bonded regardless of any legal, biological or adoptive relationship. (1) However, although custody of a child can be transferred, parental autonomy cannot, according to a ruling recently upheld by the New Jersey Appellate Division. (2)

Parental autonomy is a fundamental right of natural parents. It allows parents to make all decisions with regard to raising their child without fear of governmental interference as long as those decisions pose no threat to the child’s or the public’s order, safety and welfare. (3)

The court’s ruling came in connection with the case of Tortorice v. Vanartsdalen, involving a grandmother, Lynne Vanartsdalen, who was granted custody of her six-year-old grandson by the child’s natural mother, her daughter. The child basically had lived with Ms. Vanartsdalen all his life since both of his parents reportedly had a problem with substance abuse. In this arrangement, Ms. Vanartsdalen was considered a third-party guardian or psychological parent. (2)

As guardian, Ms. Vanartsdalen honored court-ordered visitation by the child’s natural father and maternal grandfather and step-grandmother, as well as the child’s paternal grandparents. It was when the paternal grandparents sought additional visitation privileges that Ms. Vanartsdalen objected, claiming the additional visitation would undermine her standing as the child’s custodial parent. She argued that Mr. and Mrs. Tortorice would need to prove that denying increased visitation would result in “identifiable harm” to the child. (2)

The court noted that Ms. Vanartsdalen did indeed meet all the criteria of a psychological parent – she was granted custody by her daughter; the child had lived with her most of his life; she assumed parental responsibility; and a bond had been formed between her and her grandson. However, the court ruled, because Ms. Vanartsdalen was not the child’s legal parent – a status reserved for natural or adoptive parents — the “identifiable harm” standard did not apply. According to the court, while custody can be transferred, parental rights, or autonomy, cannot. (2)

If you or someone you know needs the assistance of an attorney for a child custody or parental rights issue in the State of New Jersey – specifically in Hunterdon County or the surrounding area, please contact the family law attorneys at The Rotolo Law Firm.




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