Several months ago a man came into our office looking for help getting visitation with his two-year-old daughter. The catch – one week earlier, the child’s mother revealed to him that he was not the child’s biological father. The man was obviously distraught and wanted to know if there was anything he could do. Did he have any rights if he was not the biological father? The answer was yes. We filed a petition in the family court seeking custody, placement and visitation under the theory that while he may not be the biological father, he was the child’s de facto father. Rhode Island law provides that even a parent who has no biological connection to a child, can establish his or her entitlement to parental rights if they have served as a “psychological” or “de facto” parent to that child. See RIGL §15-8-3; Pettinato v. Pettinato, 582 A. 2d 909 (R.I. 1990); Rubano v. DiCenzo, 759 A.2d 959 (R.I. 2000); and Resendes v. Brown, 966 A.2d 1249 (R.I. 2009).
In the case at issue, our client was the only father ever known to the child. He was listed on the birth certificate; he had regular visitation with the child; he provided child support for her; and since the child’s conception, mom had represented to our client and everyone else that he was the child’s father. We set forth these facts in a detailed affidavit. We also detailed mom’s recent attempts to obstruct dad’s relationship with the child. With that affidavit, we were able to get an emergency order that restrained mom from: interfering with dad’s regular visitation, introducing the child to the alleged biological father, and discussing the issue of paternity with the child. We then created a package full of loving pictures between dad and daughter, emails and text messages from mom talking about what a great dad our client was, and a copy of the child’s birth certificate. We asked mom to admit that these were in fact true copies of these images, text messages and documents. These details were all essential in laying the groundwork for a winningde facto parent claim.
At the first hearing, the Court referred the case to mediation and kept the emergency order in full force and effect pending a final resolution. Mediation proved to be less than successful with mom failing to cooperate. At the next scheduled hearing, mom failed to appear. We asked the court to enter a default judgment against her and to grant dad’s petition. Dad testified to the facts as set forth in his affidavit and the Judge granted his petition. Specifically: naming him as the child’s legal father, granting him joint legal custody of the child and giving him all reasonable rights of visitation. The judge went on to restrain mom from disputing paternity, discussing the matter with the child, making disparaging remarks about dad to the child, or ever introducing the child to the biological father.
What was key to dad’s success? Laying out with specificity dad’s relationship with the child, mom’s acknowledgment of his paternity from the point of conception and mom’s attempts to thwart that relationship. The court ultimately found that father has a strong parent-child relationship with his daughter and that mother had taken steps to interfere with that. Getting creative about how you lay out the claim and the relief sought was key to our client’s success. We realized from the outset it was important not only to secure custody and visitation, but to make sure mom was precluded from introducing the “new dad” or any other dad she may find, into the child’s life. We crafted our petition such that our client would be named the father and get all rights associated with being the father, and mom would be precluded from disputing paternity.
Ultimately a Judge can only grant what you ask for – so you have to ask for it in your initial filings.