Adapting to the Modern Family:
Recognizing the Psychological Parent in Child Welfare
Sarah E. Oliver
Children entering foster care increasingly come from non-
traditional families. A number of these children have no legal parent
present in their lives and the person who has become the
psychological parent to the child—the “individual the child
perceives, on a psychological and emotional level, to be his or her
parent”1—has no established legal right to custody of the child.
Child welfare laws in many states fail to account for the growing
phenomenon of non-traditional family units at the most critical
stages of dependency proceedings—first, when the child is removed
from his or her home and second, when the court determines
whether the circumstances justified the removal. This Article
illustrates that when an individual other than the biological parent
raises a child—perhaps a grandparent, a stepparent,2 a legal parent’s
* Certified Juvenile/Child Welfare Law Specialist and attorney with the Children’s
Law Center of California, Los Angeles Office, where she oversees nearly 150 child
welfare cases with over 300 child-clients and appears in court daily in the Los
Angeles County Superior Court, Juvenile Branch, Dependency Division. J.D.,
Whittier Law School, 2002; B.A., Scripps College, 1997. The views expressed in
this Article do not necessarily reflect the views of Children’s Law Center of
California. To learn more about Children’s Law Center of California, the largest
non-profit, public interest law firm in the nation dedicated solely to protecting the
rights of abused and neglected children, see www.clcla.org.
1 See James G. O’Keefe, Note, The Need to Consider Children’s Rights in
Biological Parent v. Third Party Custody Disputes, 67 CHI.-KENT L. REV. 1077,
1081 (1991) (defining “psychological parent” as the “individual the child
perceives, on a psychological and emotional level, to be his or her parent”).
2 Many states define stepparents as relatives rather than parents. See, e.g., CAL.
WELF. & INST. CODE § 361.3(c)(2) (West 2013) (“‘Relative’ means an adult who is
related to the child by blood, adoption, or affinity within the fifth degree of
kinship, including stepparents, stepsiblings, and all relatives whose status is