With the whirlwind of publicity surrounding Caitlyn (formerly "Bruce") Jenner's coming out as transgender, the often overlooked issue of transgendered individuals and transgender children in particular has become hot topic. Of specific importance in the family law community are issues including transgender children's access to resources, support and facilities they need. This can become especially trying for families going through divorce and custody litigation in addition to struggling to adjust to life with a transgender child.
This hot button issue regarding minors has yet to hit the appellate courts in Pennsylvania. However, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania judge has recently been faced with a decision about whether parents of an adult child have the right to thwart her attempts to undergo a sex reassignment surgery. Christine Kitzler of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a transgender woman is seeking to undergo surgery to remove her male anatomy was hauled into a Philadelphia court by her parents this week. The surgery was temporarily postponed while the judge considering issuing an order further staying the surgery. Kitzler's parents argued that their "son" was not competent enough to make an informed decision regarding the surgery and requested that the court appoint a temporary guardian. Various medical and psychological experts testified at this week's hearing; however, Kitzler's lawyer alleges the real issue in the case is a difference of opinion regarding the validity of Kitzler's (or anyone else's) status as transgender. No final decision has been made in this case.
Though this is one of the first Pennsylvania case to hit the news media about transgender children, it certainly won't be the last. This issue is likely to be even more controversial for minors seeking to undergo surgeries because they need their parent's or guardian's permission to seek medical treatment. In Pennsylvania, parents or guardians who have legal custody of their children are responsible for making medical decisions for them. Though physical and legal custody most often go hand-in-hand when parents are separated, they are two unique kinds of legal rights. Physical custody rights allow parents to spend time with their children and can be supervised or unsupervised. Legal custody is the right to make legal, medical and educational decisions for your children. Unless a judge has concerns about a parent's ability to exercise reasonable care in making these decisions, he will usually award the parents shared legal custody even if one parent is the primary physical custodian. This arrangement gives each parent the authority to make decisions for their children when they are in their custody but requires the parents to work together to make major medical, educational and legal decisions that might impact the child's life.
Though a shared legal custody order is very common in most custody cases, inevitably, this decision may become more heated when one parent supports a minor child's status as transgender and one does not. Because Pennsylvania custody law is focused on the best interest of the child standard, cases involving complex legal custody issues often require the testimony of expert witnesses including psychologists and physicians. The complexities are best handled with the assistance of counsel especially given the emotional stress that often results. If you are facing legal custody litigation and are in need of legal assistance, contact our firm today!