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February 13, 2005

Gay man takes custody fight across state line

From: Richmond Times Dispatch - Richmond,VA,USA - Feb 13, 2005

A Virginia court has barred him and his partner from living together with his son

Feb 13, 2005

ALEXANDRIA - The day in 2002 when Ulf Hedberg won a legal fight with his ex-wife and was awarded physical custody of his son should have been a happy one for him.

Instead, Hedberg calls it a "cruel victory."

That's because the Virginia judge who named Hedberg the custodial parent attached a life-altering restriction: Hedberg, who is openly gay, would be barred from living in the same house where he and his partner had been raising the boy, who is now 12.

"Our happy life was smashed as a result of the Virginia court ruling," said Hedberg, who is hearing-impaired and responded to a series of questions in writing.

Now Hedberg, director of archives at Gallaudet University in Washington, is trying to lift the restriction, challenging the constitutionality of the Virginia custody order.

And he is bringing his challenge not in Virginia courts, but in neighboring Maryland, where Hedberg now lives with his son.

'It was perfect for our son'

With the assistance of some gay-rights advocacy groups, Hedberg has filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals seeking to undo the Virginia decision. The appeal seeks to overturn a decision by a Maryland circuit court judge who last year refused to modify the Virginia custody decision and allow Hedberg and his partner to live under one roof.

"This child's world was turned upside down all because a Virginia court issued a knee-jerk anti-gay custody restriction," said Susan Sommer, supervising attorney at Lambda Legal, which advocates for gay rights. "He lost his home, his school, his park and most importantly the proximity of the caring adult who has helped raise him. No one wins with this arrangement, and it's imperative that the court step in and put this child's interests first."

The legal challenge comes at a time when restrictions on the rights of gays and lesbians is gaining new political currency. President Bush and leading Republicans have called for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The Virginia General Assembly, meanwhile, wants to add a similar provision to the state Constitution, while also moving to restrict the rights of gays trying to adopt children.

Hedberg's tangled legal situation began in 1984 when he married Annica Detthow, a fellow immigrant from Sweden and a co-worker at Gallaudet. Their son was born in 1992.

According to court papers, the couple separated in 1996, and soon after Hedberg revealed he had been having an affair with Blaise Delahoussaye, a family friend who was the boy's godfather. After the marriage dissolved, Delahoussaye lived with Hedberg and his son in Northern Virginia, and the boy's mother lived nearby. In 1999, Hedberg and Delahoussaye bought a house in Alexandria.

"The neighborhood was nice in that we had close distance to park, sport fields, lake, pool, and entertainment area," Hedberg wrote. "Our son attended a school with excellent academic program as well. It was perfect for our son."

In 2000, Detthow was making plans to move to Florida and wanted to take her son with her. She sought legal custody of the boy in Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

The court's ruling came two years later. It dictated that Hedberg would retain physical custody, Detthow would have unlimited visitation rights, and Delahoussaye would have to move out of the Alexandria house.

'The law . . . was clear'

Complying with court order prompted Hedberg and Delahoussaye to sell the Alexandria home and move into separate apartments located near each other in Rockville, Md.

"I didn't understand why my ex-wife had done against us, especially her own son," Hedberg said.

But Detthow did not seek the restriction, her lawyer said. Rather, the judge was following a provision of Virginia family law by including it.

According to court papers, the court was following "the state's practice at the time, premised on its sodomy law, to evaluate negatively any request for custody and visitation by a parent in a same-sex relationship."

"The law in Virginia was clear," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Judges were to presume that people in same-sex relationships were breaking the law."

But Minter said such blanket presumptions are now unconstitutional because they run afoul of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating Virginia's consensual sodomy laws and those of other states.

Minter contends that restrictions such as the one on Hedberg's living arrangements must now be based on actual evidence of harm to a child, and no such evidence has been produced against Hedberg.

But Detthow's lawyer, Patrick Stiehm, discounted Minter's analysis.

"I think his group has a political agenda it wants to forward," Stiehm said. "The court was protecting the interests of the child."

Stiehm said Detthow opposes Hedberg's bid to lift the custody restriction.

"The living arrangements are exactly as the court envisioned," he said. "Her preference is that her son would live with her. If that is not to be, she does not want his homosexual lover to move back in."

Stiehm also disputed assertions in court papers that Delahoussaye is essentially a second parent to Hedberg's son.

"My client does not believe this person is anything to her son," Stiehm said. "The notion that he has assumed a parental role is nonsense."

Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or

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