Helpless, as ex rips boy away
Gena Edvalson tried for years to be a mom. So when her partner of six years, Jana Dickson, became pregnant through artificial insemination and gave birth to a boy in March 2006, nothing brought her "instantly more joy."
And nothing brought Edvalson more pain than a recent court ruling depriving her of a chance to even visit the child.
After all, she had eyed every ultrasound. She had read Little Quack to "the little guy" when he was inside Dickson's womb. She had clicked on a flashlight throughout his first night home from the hospital to check on the sleeping babe.
Both Salt Lake City women, were "mama" and -- with the help of lactation medication for Edvalson -- both breast-fed the newborn.
But the two split up when the boy was 17 months old and last week, after a yearlong legal fight, Edvalson was cut off from any contact with the 3-year-old she loves as a son. A 3rd District judge, citing a 2008 Utah law, upheld Dickson's "fundamental" right, as the biological parent, to refuse visitation.
"I never want him to think I gave him up voluntarily. I never abandoned him," Edvalson wrote on her blog. "I loved him, and I love him still."
The case highlights the predicament of same-sex parents in Utah, a state where gay and lesbian couples cannot marry, adopt children or even expect their own contracts for shared parenting and guardianship to stand in court.
Such documents did not protect Edvalson, who signed co-parenting and co-guardianship agreements with Dickson near the time the baby was born.
Although this case is "not binding precedent," Edvalson's Salt Lake City attorney, Lauren Barros, said she wouldn't recommend a co-parenting agreement to other same-sex couples.
"It was my last hope," Barros said. It didn't work.
Frank Mylar, Dickson's attorney, said the "important principle" in the case is that the law upholds the "right of a parent to make decisions for their child and to change their mind."
That, Mylar said, is precisely what Dickson did: change her mind.
Dickson and Edvalson met at the YWCA, where Dickson worked with teens and Edvalson with battered women. The couple moved in together in 2000 and formally declared their love with a commitment ceremony in 2003.
"Jana had kind of joked that she was old-fashioned like that," Edvalson said. "She didn't want to have a kid without making that official."
Edvalson began artificial insemination. Two years later, she still wasn't pregnant. Dickson, who is nine years younger than Edvalson, decided to give it a go. She became pregnant after her second treatment.
"We must have taken like 10 pregnancy tests," Edvalson, now 42, recalled. "I can't even describe it. I was so excited."
After the boy's birth, the couple planned to move to California so that Edvalson could adopt him, Dickson said, but, "due to major issues in our relationship, that never happened."
When the boy was 4 months old, the pair had a fight. Edvalson moved out for a week.
"She told me that he wasn't my kid, he was her kid, and she told me I should move on," Edvalson said. "We worked it out for another year -- but that never went away."
Dickson and Edvalson broke up in 2007, when their son already was calling both of them "mama" ("Mama G" for Edvalson was a little too tricky).
Dickson, 33, now is married to a man, but said, in an e-mail, she has "dated both men and women" in her life. An attorney who defends parents in abuse, neglect and custody cases, Dickson said she is a "stronger believer than ever" in the right of lesbians to marry and adopt -- if the biological mom wants her partner to do so.
She declined to comment specifically on why she has made the "very hard decision to limit Gena's role" in her son's life, noting Edvalson's "palpable hostility" toward her complicated the visits. But she agreed the relationship "never really recovered from that initial move-out."
While the couple still were together, Edvalson complained that her lack of "legally recognized rights" to the child created "unfair power dynamics" in the relationship, according to an affidavit Dickson filed.
For 10 months after the breakup, Edvalson generally saw the boy two days a week, but she felt Dickson was "whittling away" her time when the visits dropped to one afternoon a week. Edvalson asked her attorney to send Dickson a letter, requesting mediation to uphold the co-parenting agreement.
"Then Jana hired Frank Mylar," Edvalson said, "and it was kind of game on."
Mylar, a former Utah attorney general candidate, belongs to a conservative alliance of "Christian attorneys," the Alliance Defense Fund, and regularly fights against the extension of rights for gay and lesbian couples. He did just that in pushing changes to the 2008 law that severely limited Edvalson's ability to press for visitation in court.
Dickson declined mediation and stopped letting Edvalson visit the child. Edvalson did not see him for a year until -- after a hearing in April -- the judge ordered visitation once a week in advance of his ruling.
That decision came last week. The boy now is off-limits to her.
There is no next step in getting to see her boy again, Edvalson said. "The next step is [Dickson] doing the right thing. I have no legal recourse."
Her advice for other same-sex couples: Don't have kids unless you have the legal protection of an adoption (something you cannot get in Utah).
For now, Edvalson, who is working on a master's degree in social work, is keeping an online journal to record her experience in case her one-time son someday notices the hyphenated last name on his birth certificate and has questions.
She cannot say enough about how sweet and outgoing he is -- even "old men" at the grocery store, she said, would comment, "Your kid's a flirt." She calls him "my sweet boy."
"I know everyone thinks their kid's the greatest," Edvalson said. "It just doesn't help that mine actually was the greatest."
Gena Edvalson's attorney, Lauren Barros, represented Keri Jones in a landmark Utah parental-rights case: Jones v. Barlow.
In 2007, the Utah Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling and nullified a common-law doctrine, "in loco parentis," which recognized a person who acts as a parent although he or she has no blood or legal ties to a child.
Jones lost visitation with a child born to her former lesbian partner, Cheryl Barlow, while the couple were in a relationship.
In 2008, the Legislature restored an avenue for nonbiological parents, including stepparents, to seek rights to a child, but -- addressing concerns raised by conservative groups about gay and lesbian partners -- only when the biological parent has abandoned or abused the child.
"The state has essentially tied the hands of the court so they can't consider the best interests of the child," said Will Carlson, public-policy manager for the gay-rights group Equality Utah. "They are ignoring the interests of [same-sex] parents as expressed in every document that could be drafted by the couple."
Gena Edvalson has been blogging about her failed fight to retain visitation rights to "the little guy" at thelostmom.wordpress.com. Here are some excerpts:
April 28, 2009
This could break a woman's heart.
It haunts me really. It's the thing that can wake me up in the middle of the night. Tightening in the chest.
The idea, that in his [then] barely 2-year-old mind, all [he] knew is that one day I was there and then I just never came back. He has no way to know that I wanted, every day, to see him. That I longed to hold him and kiss his little cheeks. He'll never know that I cried for months. He'll never know. But I do.
All he knows is that I never came back.
July 9, 2009
Last week the judge ruled in her favor. The contract goes against Utah public policy. There is no longer an order of visitation. I lost my son. He lost another adult (nay, a mom) who loves him.