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California’s ‘Modern Family Act’ aims to bring family law into 21st century

Jason Patric
In this August 2013 photo, actor Jason Patric, urges lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow him another chance to seek paternity rights for his 3-year-old son, while appearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in Sacramento, Calif. The evolving definition of family is at the heart of several bills whose fate will be decided when the state’s lawmakers return from their summer recess next month. Rich Pedroncelli, AP

The need was highlighted by the case of Patric, who helped former girlfriend Danielle Schreiber artificially conceive a child in lieu of her using an anonymous sperm donor. They disagree whether he was meant to have a role in the now 4-year-old boy’s life, after Schreiber cut off Patric’s access.

Broader legislation that failed last year would have allowed sperm donors to petition for paternal rights if they demonstrate involvement in their biological children’s lives.

The new bill, AB2344, instead would create an optional form that would clarify what, if any, role a sperm donor should have in a child’s life. But it doesn’t address the underlying question in Patric’s case when a donor takes on fatherly roles regardless of agreements.

“Because families are formed in so many different ways and (disputes) are always based on the factual situation that a particular family is facing, it’s almost impossible for any family code to address all needs,” said Cathy Sakimura, the family law director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Social conservatives say legislation to change family law wouldn’t be necessary if traditional family structures remained the norm.

“This shows how far our society has fallen: It used to be a simple answer to who’s your father and who’s your mother,” said Randy Thomason, president of SaveCalifornia.com and an advocate of traditional families.

Such arguments didn’t resonate in the Assembly, where the Modern Family Act passed on a 62 to 4 vote with some Republican support and little organized opposition.

Another bill moving through the Legislature addresses conflicts between children and their stepparents given the prevalence of divorce and remarriage. The bill, AB2034 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, would create a new avenue for adult children who want to visit ailing parents over the objections of new spouses.

Kerri Kasem, whose father, Casey Kasem, was a famous radio personality and voice of Scooby-Doo’s sidekick Shaggy, tearfully testified in support of the bill a week after her father died in June. She and two siblings were in a lengthy battle with their father’s second wife Jean over his care.

Gatto’s bill allows adult children to petition judges for visitation rights of abused or dependent parents. It’s meant to be a simpler alternative to existing law.

Kasem said in an interview that she and her siblings settled for limited visitation at one point after facing more than $100,000 in legal costs and months in court for a complicated dispute over dueling conservatorships.

“Most people don’t have that money. Most people don’t have anything signed,” Kasem said. “There are so many people suffering through the same exact horrible experience we are.”

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