Jason Patric's custody battle over parental rights for sperm donors could have negative and far-reaching implications for couples who aren't Hollywood movie actors - same sex couples, infertile men, single mothers and children conceived after rape.
August 18, 2013

Jason Patric grew up in the heart of the Hollywood life, his father was actor and playwright Jason Miller, and his grandfather was Jackie Gleason. He’s most notable as one of the stars of a 25-year-old vampire horror movie, “The Lost Boys,” and has dated some of the most celebrated actresses and models, including Julia Roberts, with whom he began a relationship just days after she called off her wedding to his former co-star Kiefer Sutherland. In between trysts with Roberts, supermodel Christy Turlington and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Patric had a ten year on-again-off-again relationship with his long-time girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber. They never married.

But at the moment, what he’s most famous for is a bitter custody battle over their son, Gus, a three-year-old boy conceived after the pair had broken up. Schreiber wanted a baby, and Patric agreed to donate sperm for in vitro fertilization. After the boy was born, the couple reconciled, dating briefly before the relationship once again foundered. That’s when Patric decided he wanted joint custody, something Schreiber had never agreed to. He says he signed his name as “intended parent” on the donor form (as did Schreiber) when he donated his sperm, and spend significant time with the child until Schreiber cut off his access. Her attorneys claim any involvement with the child was based simply on Patric’s dating Schreiber, not in any role specifically as a father.

The news reports read like a script for a Made for Television Mini-Series, with Patric writing much of the dialogue. “The two most important words in a child -- the two most important visions, ideas -- are Mama and Dada. It means safety, support, food, love. That's there. I mean, that was always going to be the case,” he told the court, and showed typical home videos of Gus’s first haircut, a birthday party, and – not so typical for those of us who aren’t Hollywood actors - the moment when the little boy recognised his father’s photograph on a Playbill. He showed the court a Christmas card from Schreiber, presumably sent during their last period of reconciliation, and read from it. “Jason, I love you more than anything. What else can I say? You've done everything.” In her own handwriting, he emphasised, she’d written a message from Gus, “Dada, thank you for teaching me to pee in the toilet, watch airplanes, learn Beatles songs. I love you, Dada.”

He didn’t read, however, a letter he sent to Scheiber regarding his feelings about paternity before agreeing to donate his sperm. When asked about it, he said it was “everything about our relationship, what we were, my fear of being a father. ‘I don’t know if I can be a father, I think I can give you this, I don’t think we can be married,’ all that. But that’s nothing.” He described it as being merely “a letter... in a despondent night, a break-up letter, a love letter, this and that, signed by myself. It’s not a legal document.”

Yet despite his impassioned pleas, his poignant Christmas card and videos, his tearful testimony, he lost his battle for joint custody. He’s now pushing for legislation to grant parenting rights to sperm donors, although he’s so far failed to persuade an Assembly committee to move ahead with the bill.

On the surface, that seems very unfair, so I felt a bit torn. But the more I read, the more it seems there was something missing, and it didn't take much digging to figure out this particular case is slightly more ambiguous than Kramer vs. Kramer.

Here’s the crux of the matter: California law says sperm donors are not considered legal fathers unless the couple agreed to terms in writing before conception. He not only didn’t have a written agreement, he didn’t want one. Despite his acting career, Patric didn't have much in the way of money, so he agreed to donating sperm on condition that Schrieber did not seek child support and kept his sperm donation a secret. His name isn’t even on the birth certificate. Patric’s explanation? “If I can protect him from the bad aspects of my fame that I can, I certainly will... This was my idea of trying, and it worked. For two years, there were no pictures of Gus [with] me. None.”

That reasoning seems a bit too pat, a bit too narcissistic. I'll admit I’m not the best judge of famous people; I’m usually baffled by most of the faces and names in the sort of celebrity magazines littering doctors’ waiting rooms. I do feel the children of celebrities deserve not to be hounded by paparazzi, but I had never heard of Jason Patric until I read about this custody battle. It seems Patric was supposed to star in the Civil War film, Copperhead, but was kicked off the project by the director for “creative differences” and “failing to take direction.” That’s Hollywood-speak for “being a gigantic pain in the arse.” His latest acting role is rather a step down, in a supporting role for a crime film. I’m not so convinced this has as much to do with protecting a child from his father’s “fame” as it does Patric coming across as a temperamental frustrated actor keen to stay in the public eye.

And despite his claim there were no photos of Patric with his son, it doesn’t take much of an internet search to find quite a few of him playing with Gus in the surf, walking down a street with the boy in his arms with Schreiber next to him, Schreiber taking a photo of Patric holding Gus on her mobile phone in a park. Schreiber and Patric had been dating for over a decade, it wouldn’t be that fantastical a leap to assume the child she gave birth to was his. So aggressive paparazzi seems a pretty thin excuse.

He had the opportunity to safeguard any parental rights when he agreed to donate his sperm, and didn’t want that option then. He’s never paid anything in child support, and she’s never asked him for any. She kept her end of the deal. It wasn't until they broke up for the final time that he started petitioning for joint custody. He's reneging on the original agreement now, and trying to claim the moral high ground.

And it just gets uglier, or juicier, depending on your enjoyment of celebrity scandal. He claims Schreiber has no photographs of him in the boy’s house, weeping as he says his son is not even allowed to mention his name in his mother’s home. She claims she’s willing to voluntarily offer him the right to spend time with Gus, but won’t agree to any legal rights to joint custody or visitations.

He says he was there 24/7 as daddy. She says he never did so much as change a single diaper. She’s alleging Patric has a bit of a temper; accusing him of berating her in the street and chasing her until she ran into a nearby Hyatt hotel and asked for help from their security people. He’s insisting that’s bullshit. Both of them are hiring lobbyists, he’s seen rehearsing his lines while waiting to testify like this is just another acting gig, while she’s camped out on a stairwell outside the hearing room biting her nails. They both have petitions going on Change.org. He casts his ordeal as a tragedy for his son, describing his three-year-old “sitting daily, wondering what happened in the most severe form of alienation that one could imagine.” The boy is three - he might be confused, he might be sad, but he's not cowering in a corner suffering from depression and overwhelming angst.

Frankly, if this weren’t an overblown celebrity melodrama, it would never make the news, the case would have been thrown out without all the histrionics and television interviews. But it has – and it now has far-reaching implications for parents who aren’t capricious Hollywood actors. Same sex couples who want to have a family together, or women who want to be single mothers on their own, or husbands who are infertile but want a child with their wives, or women who become pregnant after rape but choose to keep the child could all be adversely affected by this should Patric prevail in his quest to wrest parental rights from his former girlfriend. It could have a significant impact on family law, but more importantly, an impact on the kids caught in the middle. They’re not possessions, not toys to be squabbled over in courts. He donated sperm. That’s it, that’s all he agreed to. Should the parents of someone who donated their organs to a child - a heart, a kidney, a cornea - have the same rights to custody of the recipient of those organs? That may seem a bit of reductio ad absurdum, but it’s the same logic.

Patric expressed his disappointment after the bill failed, saying the committee “doesn’t care about children in the middle of something and fixing it.” But there’s nothing broken here. The fact remains he had a chance before his child was conceived to have an agreement in writing with the mother about any parental rights. He didn't want it then, for rather selfish reasons, and it’s rather hypocritical to be changing his mind now, banging on his chest like he’s the injured party. Nor does it help those fathers with genuine conflicts over child custody. The law is fine as it is – it protects those women who want to conceive a child while still giving men who donate their sperm the option to safeguard their parental rights in writing beforehand.

Custody battles are always heartbreaking. But in this case, the right decision was made, Patric should accept it and work less on presenting himself to the world as a tragic hero and more on quietly repairing the damage he's done to his own family.

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