In the latest development in a custody struggle that could break new ground in California family law, a Canoga Park man was awarded custody Monday of a 4-year-old boy whom he has been raising but did not father.
An elated Larry McLinden, 43, won primary custody of Larry McLinden Jr., who was declared his legal son by the same court last month even though he is not the boy's biological father and never married the child's mother.
"I do believe that Larry McLinden will afford Larry Jr. a more stable environment," ruled Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dana Senit Henry after a day of testimony in the custody dispute between McLinden and the boy's mother, Karen Hamilton Munyer, 34, of Inglewood.
McLinden has maintained that he believed the boy was his biological son until he and Munyer broke off their relationship and she told him that he was not the father.
The judge, who earlier ruled that McLinden should be considered the boy's father because the two are psychologically attached, also granted McLinden's request to terminate any parental rights for Matthew Florence, whom blood tests identified as the child's most likely biological father.
Florence did not appear at Monday's hearing and consented to the suspension of his rights, lawyers for McLinden and the boy's mother said.
McLinden, an investment banker, said he expected to win custody, given his previous court victory.
Munyer will be allowed to have her son on alternate weekends and alternate Wednesdays, the judge ruled. Munyer and McLinden, who have equally shared the boy's time for the last two years, should have joint authority in decisions affecting the boy's upbringing, with final say in educational matters resting with McLinden, the ruling said.
The case received widespread attention last month when Henry pronounced McLinden as the boy's "natural" and "psychological" parent even though the two are not biologically connected.
Ruling last month in a paternity suit brought by McLinden when he and Munyer split up in 1989, Henry wrote that the youngster "clearly recognized" McLinden as his father and that "adverse psychological consequences" for the child would result if their relationship were severed.
The boy's mother and her husband, David Munyer, have vowed to appeal that ruling, which gave McLinden equal footing with Munyer as a parent in the ensuing custody dispute. According to family law experts, a published decision by the appellate court could set a precedent in California such as those that exist already in Michigan and Wisconsin, recognizing "psychological" parenthood.
At Monday's hearing, Munyer's attorney, Steven Rein, asked that Henry continue to allow McLinden and Munyer an equal share of the boy's time. "There's the old expression, If it's not broken, don't fix it," he told the court.
But attorney Glen Schwartz, who represented McLinden, objected to the request, saying that a report by a court-appointed psychiatrist had recommended that the boy spend more time with McLinden. "Indeed, it would be detrimental" to the boy's well-being otherwise, said Schwartz, who sought to portray Munyer as a woman with a history of unstable relationships and inconsistent employment.
"This child is deeply bonded to Larry McLinden Sr.," he said. "This bond is healthy and strong."
A teary-eyed Munyer, who said her legal costs have exceeded $30,000, expressed bitter disappointment at the ruling.
"I'll be a weekend mother. I think that's very detrimental to the child--seeing his mother all the time and not seeing her all of a sudden," she said. "I hope it doesn't hurt him."
McLinden said the ruling validates his efforts to raise the boy.
"I've demonstrated my parental skills," he said. "I raised this child from birth, and he's known no other father but me.
"In my mind and my heart and my soul, he is my son."