Family law responds to a shifting culture

Ozzie and Harriet have gotten divorced, had surrogate babies, have become single parents and may soon fight over the true parent of their cloned infant. All these changes in their lifestyle are being taken to court, and family law has to figure out what rights each of them and their children and the grandparents have.

To keep practitioners in family law and welfare up to date on the issues affecting families — including technology, society, psychology and the law — the Pennsylvania Bar Institute, which runs continuing education courses for lawyers, held a two-day symposium at the Law School as part of the school’s sesquicentennial celebration in November.

“Family Law Symposium 2000: The American Family in the 21st Century” drew nationally recognized experts to speak on how changes in the culture and the study of social sciences have affected the practice of family law.

To give the symposium a broad scope, the Institute enlisted the help of the Law School, which, according to Law School Dean Michael A. Fitts, has become increasingly interdisciplinary in the past 10 or 15 years.

Speakers included child welfare experts and academic experts in psychiatry, sociology, history and bioethics, discussing topics such as the impact of reproductive technology on families and public intervention in private life.

The event was not typical of the Institute’s nuts-and-bolts procedural approach to continuing education, said the group’s associate director, Karen Darby. “This [event] is about our culture and how that impacts on family law — the law that tries to govern what happens when families break up.”

The opening session, “Placing the Family in Historical Perspective,” set the tone for the event, which attracted about 90 registrants, including psychologists and social workers as well as lawyers and judges.

The speakers showed how the changes that affected Ozzie and Harriet, and the academic understanding of those changes, have influenced the law.

Since the 1920s, social science has influenced the development of no-fault divorce, instituted once people realized that infidelity was a symptom of marital problems, not a cause, said Michael Grossberg, a family law historian from the University of Indiana.

However, the law has remained unchanged elsewhere, as in its retention of class distinctions in treating families, he said. For example, unless they join the welfare rolls, the law protects the middle-class Nelsons from the governmental intrusion of caseworker home visits.

Family rights, as implied in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, played a role in the a recent grandparent visitation rights decision, said former family court judge Peggy Cooper Davis, from New York University. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her majority opinion in Troxel vs. Granville, “focus[ed] respectfully on the mother’s decision” to limit the grandparents’ visits, Davis said.

Other speakers included Penn Professor of Sociology Frank Furstenberg and Medical School Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics Anthony Rostain.

Furstenberg argued that even though Ozzie and Harriet have changed, their children David and Ricky are doing just fine. “Parents are spending more time, not less time, with their children. … The family is doing well.”

And Harriet is a terrific single parent. “There’s no strong proof that a well-constituted reconstituted family or single parents can’t do a good job,” Rostain said.

The symposium was cosponsored by the Family Law Section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, the School of Social Work and the Family Institute of Philadelphia.


Originally published on January 18, 2001