Benjamin v. Reich , just decided by the Washington Court of
Appeals, discusses the rights of an adult who has raised a child not related to him or her and not adopted. In 2005 the Washington State Supreme Court adopted a common law rule that a person caring for a child as if he or she were the child’s parent can assume the role of a parent in the child’s life and, if so, the adult’s parental rights will be protected.
Before 2005, and in states that have not adopted this doctrine, both the child and the surrogate parent were out of luck if a biological parent wanted something else for the child. The old law seemed to treat the biological parent’s rights almost as property rights and gave no consideration to the welfare of the child where someone else was functionally the parent. The new law seems to be much more protective of the child.
This is an illustration of how the common law adapts to changing societal circumstances. The facts of this case are far from unique: the child abandoned by the father and the mother living with a man who rears the child as if it were his own. Calamity befalls the mother and without the de facto parent doctrine, the man who has reared the child, and with whom the child has a primary relationship, has no right to see the child or have a voice in its care. There are many variants from this fact pattern, and the Court’s recognition of a child’s parental relations with reponsible people who are not biological parents goes a long way to stabilizing the life of a child of unfortunate domestic circumstanes.