Lesbian mother loses custody to sperm donor

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Kris Williams and Rebekah Wilson were together for five years, raising Williams’s teenage son when they decided to have a baby of their own. 

Wilson wanted to be a mother after watching Williams parent her 16-year-old son from a previous marriage.

“So we started planning and looking at different avenues to make that happen,” Williams told TODAY. “We wanted that bio-connection, so we found a website and who we thought was the perfect guy.”  

The couple, who had been active in the LGBTQ movement in Oklahoma, used the app “Just a Baby” to find a sperm donor and did.

Wilson and Williams married on June 1, 2019, when Wilson was six months pregnant. Wilson then gave birth to Williams’s and Wilson’s son, Warren. Williams cut the umbilical cord. The couple named their son for a beloved family member on Williams’s side of the family.

“I thought it was a dream come true. It was special,” said Williams.

Williams and Wilson co-parented Warren until the couple split up in November 2021. According to court documents, Williams has not seen the child since Nov. 23, 2021, when she says she dropped him off at daycare.

“If anything can put a hole in your soul, I would say it’s that,” Williams told TODAY.

On February 13, Judge Lynn McGuire of the Seventh Judicial Court of Oklahoma, ruled that Williams is not the child’s mother and that the sperm donor, Harlan Vaughn, is his legal parent. 

“I guess I’m still in shock,” Williams told Oklahoma’s KFOR-TV news on February 14, stating that the court could not take the title of mom to the boy from her — even though that is in fact what the court just did.

According to court documents, in September 2018, Wilson entered a sperm donor agreement with Vaughn, but Williams was not included nor referenced in the agreement.

The court documents state several at-home, non-medically assisted inseminations took place over the weekend of December 7-9, 2018, which resulted in Wilson’s pregnancy.

When the child was born in August 2019, both Wilson and Williams were listed as mothers on the birth certificate. In November 2021, the couple separated. Wilson then said that Williams abused her — a claim Williams denies. In December, Wilson obtained a Victim Protective Order against Williams, and she and Warren moved in with Vaughn.

In January 2022, Wilson petitioned the court to remove Williams from the birth certificate. Court documents show on January 18, 2022, Vaughn filed a Petition for Adjudication of Paternity and Establishment of Custody and Visitation. 

Judge McGuire ruled that because Williams was not the gestational parent and did not adopt the child, she “could not establish a mother-child relationship.”

The court ruling cited Oklahoma’s Uniform Parentage Act, which has no provisions for same-sex marriage. The act also does not include artificial insemination. It does include adoption. McGuire hinged her ruling on the adoption element.

“Williams, through her testimony and exhibits presented during the trial, admitted she and Wilson discussed adoption,” the ruling said. “Furthermore, Williams admitted she knew that under Oklahoma law she needed to adopt the minor child to establish parental rights. Williams chose not to adopt. Williams testified that she didn’t believe it was fair that she would have to seek court intervention to establish parental rights of the minor child… The reality is that the law provides a legal remedy available to Williams. She knowingly chose not to pursue it.”

In the ruling, McGuire asserted, “[The act] does not take into account same-sex marriage, and there is no presumption that the wife of the mother is automatically presumed the parent of a child born during the marriage.”

The legal costs to adopt are steep. Williams’s attorney, Robyn Hopkins, told KFOR that this case highlights the disparities between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.

“Show me where the case law says that gay people have to adopt their own children?” Hopkins asked KFOR. “Why do gay people have to have a home study and a background check to adopt their own children and pay upwards of a couple thousand dollars and go to court to make it official?”

Speaking to KFOR about the ruling, Williams said through tears,“I can tell you that that brings a lot of anger and emotion on me.” Williams said the loss of her child is deeply upsetting and asked, “Why? Just why?”

Hopkins is appealing the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Williams’s behalf, citing the lack of legal precedent.

“It’s the first kind of case with these facts,” Hopkins said. “There is not case law precedent for these facts. Case law, even though it does not exist, these facts exist. And so, we have to use what we do know and apply it to the facts that are relevant.”

Shannon Minter is the Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), one of the nation’s leading advocacy organizations for LGBT people. When asked for comment, Minter told PGN, “NCLR has agreed to represent Kris Williams in appealing this decision to the Oklahoma Court of Appeals. We will be co-counseling with Robyn Hopkins, who currently represents Kris. The decision in this case conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a prior NCLR case from 2017, Pavan v. Smith, which reversed a similar Arkansas decision and held that states must treat all married couples equally.”

Minter has been practicing law for 30 years and has argued some of NCLR’s most pivotal cases. He said, “Courts in other states have followed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Pavan, and we are optimistic the Oklahoma Court of Appeal will do so as well.”

As Minter explained, “The principle in these cases is simple: if Kris were a man, she would be the child’s legal parent even if the couple had used a known sperm donor. Children born to married couples deserve the same protection, regardless of whether their parents are of the same-sex or different-sex.”

Minter also noted, “This decision is concerning and shows that the children of same-sex couples still face considerable barriers to equality in many states.”

Hopkins said, “One thing I can say is Kris is on the birth certificate of this child and they were married. I mean, to me, it’s logical. It’s black and white. But again, we don’t have case law in Oklahoma to support that. They were married. Marriage is legal. Same sex marriage is legal in the state of Oklahoma. And they had a child. So, there’s a child of the marriage.”

Court documents stipulate that both Wilson and Vaughn testified that they did not believe their sperm donor contract was valid and officially terminated it in writing in February 2022, after Vaughn petitioned for paternity. Vaughn’s Instagram profile photo is of him and Warren and most of his photos are of the child. Vaugh and Wilson have since had another child together. 

Vaughn issued a statement on the ruling: “We remain focused exclusively on our child’s protection and well-being. We are grateful for the court’s validation.”