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ACLU of Montana Defends Parents’ and Children’s Rights


Montana Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Kulstad v. Maniaci appeal

MISSOULA, MT — The Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments today on a legal appeal that could set precedent for whether children have a right to maintain relationships with both their parents after a break-up.

“We are in court today to guarantee that the two children Michelle Kulstad and Barbara Maniaci raised together are able to have a relationship with both of their parents,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Montana Legal Director Betsy Griffing. “It would be cruel to these children if they were barred from spending time with Michelle and from continuing to receive the love and support she has shown them since they entered her home. We hope this case establishes a precedent that a biological or adoptive parent cannot shut out a co-parent’s relationship with their children simply because it has become inconvenient.”

The Montana District Court ruled last fall that Kulstad was entitled to joint custody of the two children she raised with former partner Maniaci. Maniaci appealed the decision, bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

In the district court trial, an expert appointed by the Court to do a parenting evaluation of Kulstad and Maniaci described the strong parental bonds between the children and Kulstad. The expert also testified that the children could be mentally and emotionally harmed if Maniaci were permitted to sever their relationship with Kulstad.

Montana law recognizes the importance of maintaining a parent-child relationship, and that such a relationship arises not only through the birth or documented adoption of a child, but also when certain strict criteria are met by clear and convincing evidence. The court recognizes a person as a parent when:

* The person shows that he or she provided for the day-to-day physical and emotional needs of a child by providing food, shelter, clothing, care, education and discipline;
* The child’s adoptive/birth parent allowed and intended for the parent-child relationship to develop; and
* It is in the child’s best interests to recognize and continue the parent-child relationship.

Michelle Kulstad clearly meets all these requirements.

“After arguments today, we are feeling optimistic that the Montana Supreme Court will agree that it is in the children’s best interests to maintain their relationship with Michelle,” Griffing said.

In addition to Griffing, Kulstad is being represented by Susan Ridgeway and Kevin Lewis of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. Additional information about the case can be found at


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