In Henderson v State (September 2014), the Mississippi Court of Appeals overturned Mr. Henderson’s kidnapping conviction because, although he was not the biological father of the child he was accused of kidnapping, he should have been recognized as having father’s rights under Mississippi law.
The Court began its analysis by affirming a 1914 Mississippi Supreme Court decision and holding “The law is clear that absent a court decree denying him custody, a natural father cannot be convicted of kidnapping his own child.” This holding, in and of itself, is important affirmation of a father’s custodial rights, and any father threatened with legal action for lawfully exercising his custodial rights should refer that person to Henderson v State.
But Mr. Henderson was not the natural father of the child he was convicted of kidnapping. However, he had raised and supported the child as if he was the child was his own. The Court recognized that father’s rights can extend beyond the natural father (“a person does not have to be the biological parent of a child to have legally recognizable rights concerning the child”).
The Court then reaffirmed the doctrine of in loco parentis. Quoting the Mississippi Supreme Court, the Henderson Court held, “Any person who takes a child of another into his home and treats [the child] as a member of his family, providing parental supervision, support and education, as if [the child] were his own . . . is said to stand in loco parentis.” See Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184 (Miss. 2004). The Court also held that “a man who raises a child as his own, in the belief that the child is his own, ‘obtains rights that cannot be subsequently relinquished unilaterally.’” Thornhill v. Van Darn, 918 So. 2d 725 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). Thus, whether knowingly or unknowingly, a man who raises a child as his own has father’s rights recognized by Mississippi law.
Back to Mr. Henderson’s kidnapping conviction, the Court concluded that Henderson was acting in loco parentis with respect to the child he “kidnapped” and had custodial rights as a “father.” Because he was the child’s “father” and there was no court order restricting his custody rights, it was legally impossible for him to be convicted of kidnapping.
While the facts of Henderson v State are unique, the decision reaffirms that Mississippi fathers have custodial rights that must be protected and recognized by the Courts and others.