Heymann & Fletcher

Should unwed parents receive equal access to child custody court?

For most New Jersey parents, this question seems to have an obvious answer. However, it is important to understand that jurisdictions across the nation have the right to dictate how their local legal system operates. An example is found in a Midwestern state that recently made headlines over how child custody cases involving unwed parents are handled.

At issue was not the outcome of cases involving unmarried parties, but the manner in which those cases were processed. In accordance with long-standing practice, child custody cases involving unmarried parents were heard in "parentage" court. That state also had language on the books that until recently referred to the offspring of unwed parents as "bastards."

Making matters worse, unmarried parties who arrived at a large urban court complex to attend child custody hearings were directed to the basement of the courthouse. The "courtroom" in which those hearings were conducted was nothing more than converted storage space. Parents who experienced those hearings told reporters that they felt as though their cases did not receive the same attention as cases involving married parties.

A variety of legal advocates and members of the local legal community stepped in to raise awareness of the issue. When multiple legal challenges were brought forth, the county made the decision to close the "parentage" court and have all cases heard in the courtrooms located on the main floors of the judicial center. While this entire series of events may seem unusual to New Jersey parents, it is important to understand that some jurisdictions handle child custody matters differently than others. That can be especially important to parents who are considering moving to a different part of the country.

Source: Chicago Tribune, "After legal challenges, Cook County's court for unwed parents quietly goes away", Steve Schmadeke, Sept. 18, 2017

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