State Supreme Courtroom clarifies proper of stepparents to hunt custody over stepchildren | Courts
The Colorado Supreme Court decided an Arapahoe County judge incorrectly dismissed a man’s attempt to seek custody of his stepdaughter, clarifying that stepparents do not need to have exclusive physical care of a child nor the biological parents’ consent in order to pursue custody.
The decision on Tuesday was a win for Steven Eugene Cook of Cherry Hills Village, who asked for parental rights over stepdaughter EK during his divorce with EK’s biological mother. Although Cook had been caring for EK for nearly a decade during his marriage, District Court Judge Cynthia Mares rejected Cook’s request, characterizing him as more babysitter than parent.
“Stepfather was acting more like a coparent with mother than a temporary caregiver,” countered Justice Maria E. Berkenkotter in the Supreme Court’s opinion overturning Mares’ order. “Stepfather lived in the same house with EK for eight years, aided in her education, was involved in her extracurricular activities, took her on family vacations, and paid for her day-to-day expenses.”
Christopher Griffiths, an attorney for Cook, believed the Supreme Court simply clarified the law rather than broke new ground. He added that, having represented both biological parents and stepparents in family law cases, it is important for all parties to know that stepparents can pursue custody rights.
“That comes as quite a surprise to most people,” he said.
The basic facts of the case were undisputed. EK’s biological parents, Holly Mercer Cook and Martin Andre Kristiseter, divorced in late 2009, when EK was four years old. Afterward, Holly Cook began dating Steven Cook and the two married in June 2013. They had two children of their own and lived as a blended family with EK
During that time, Steven Cook assumed responsibilities of a typical parent, including picking EK up from school. On July 8, 2021, Steven Cook filed for a divorce and EK’s biological parents removed her from Cook’s home. Soon afterward, Cook filed a petition seeking parental rights, or custody, over EK
Beyond that, the parties forcefully disputed the nature of the marriage. Cook claimed he had a strong parent-child relationship with EK by helping her with her homework, routinely taking her to appointments and extracurricular activities, and taking vacations with her without either of her biological parents. Maintaining custody over EK would be in the now-teenage girl’s best interests, he argued, because Holly Cook’s mental issues and alleged drug addiction meant none of the children was safe in her care.
“Steven provides a safe, stable, comfortable home for (EK), as he has for the majority of her life,” he wrote in asking the court for custody.
EK’s biological parents responded by accusing Steven Cook of abusing Holly Cook and overstating his involvement in EK’s life. They also argued he used EK as a “weapon” in the divorce.
After a hearing, Mares issued an order on Feb. 3, 2022, rejecting Steven Cook’s request to gain parenting time over EK She relied upon a section of Colorado law providing that a nonparent can seek custody over a child if they have “physical care” for at least 182 days prior to the court proceedings. Mares determined Cook did not have physical care over EK because Holly Cook was the one who made decisions for EK and “provided for her daily care.”
“This court will not find that a stepparent has standing to obtain parental rights merely because he assisted the child’s mother in parenting the child or paid for the child’s expenses with marital funds,” she wrote. “Being a supportive stepparent is not sufficient grounds to obtain standing to seek parental rights.”
Cook appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing Mares had disregarded the eight years he cared for EK jointly with her mother and claiming the judge erroneously equated physical care with “unilateral decision-making authority.”
EK’s biological parents defended Mares’ finding that any care Cook provided for EK was only at the direction of Holly Cook.
“Mr. Cook wants this court to broadly interpret (the law) to provide standing for the allocation of parental responsibilities to include any person who may have lived in the same household as a child that provided minimum basic care as a household member,” wrote attorneys for the biological parents. “This is a dangerous interpretation that will disrupt the fundamental constitutional parental rights of many families.”
The Supreme Court sided with Steven Cook, finding he had, indeed, provided physical care for EK for at least 182 days, considering the several years he spent living with her and the rest of their family. The law did not require that Cook be the exclusive care provider for EK, nor did the biological parents need to consent to Cook assuming responsibility over EK, the court said.
Berkenkotter, in the June 21 opinion, addressed the biological parents’ insinuation that Cook was merely a babysitter.
“However, likening stepfather’s role in EK’s physical care to that of a temporary caregiver — like a babysitter — disregards the nature, frequency, and duration of contacts between EK and Stepfather,” she wrote.
The attorneys for EK’s biological parents did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Griffiths, the lawyer for Steven Cook, said establishing standing to seek custody is the first step for his client, and the case will now focus on a determination of whether Cook is a “psychological parent,” whose custody would be in EK’s best interest. In his experience, Griffiths said, the first step is typically not disputed.
“A babysitter would fail the first phase. He or she would be unable to show if they have standing. But most of the cases, if you’re going to lose them, are lost in the second phase. Sure, you’ve lived with this child for some time, but the child doesn’t have a sufficient bond or relationship with you and you’re not a psychological parent,” he said. “What went wrong in this case is the client lost in the first phase.”
He added that Mares could still decide Cook is not entitled to parenting time in the second phase of the case.
The case is In Re the Parental Responsibilities of EK