By Danielle Walle
The decisions on how to raise your child are personal and every family is different, from even before a child is born. Home birth? C-section? Once you get home, does baby sleep in a room with you or in a separate nursery? Is baby breastfed or bottle fed? These are decisions parents often make together with the guidance of doctors, family, and friends, but without the oversight of anyone else.
In a child custody dispute, if parties cannot agree, the court decides. Most people recognize that the court may establish a custody schedule, but what surprises many is that the court’s authority is much more broad. Recent cases in Virginia and Maryland have highlighted just how much authority a court can have. Arleta Ramirez was ordered by a judge to feed her baby using a bottle. This result came from Mike Ridgeway, the father, arguing that Ms. Ramirez, was using breast feeding as a tool to come keep him from his daughter. Ms. Ramirez argued that her daughter rejected bottles and that she was unable to produce sufficient milk by pumping. Mr. Ridgeway argued that, even if these things were true, his right to have uninterrupted overnight time with his daughter was more important for his daughter than breastfeeding. The court agreed. Ms. Ramirez was ordered to feed the child with a bottle and to make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule.
Although this specific case was not in North Carolina, North Carolina has had substantial litigation related to breastfeeding. In 1977, North Carolina law abolished the “tender years” doctrine. The tender years doctrine was the presumption that a mother was considered to be a natural custodian of her young and was the proper person to have custody even if all other factors were equal. In 2006, the North Carolina Court of Appeals overruled a trial court’s decision that a breastfeeding mother developed a “natural bond” such that removing a young child from the primary custody of a mother would be detrimental for the child. In Greer v. Greer, the Court of Appeals said that assuming a breastfeeding mother had a more important bond with a child than a father does is indistinguishable from the tender years doctrine. From that case, and others like it, North Carolina child custody attorneys recognize that both parents – mother and father – have equal rights to be a parent. While recognizing the value of breastfeeding for children, our Mecklenburg County Courts must follow the law which that a relationship between a child and their father is far more valuable to that child than breastfeeding.
While it is not uncommon for people to assume and believe that mothers have priority rights to their children, the law does not agree. Both mother and father have equal rights to be parents to their children. At Marcellino & Tyson, we work hard to make sure that our clients’ rights are protected, including a client’s right to be a parent to his child.