Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Arkansas ACLU Continues Suit Against Act 1

Last November, Arkansas voters were faced with Proposed Initiative Act No. 1, the Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban. The act, which provides "that an individual who is cohabiting outside of a valid marriage may not adopt or be a foster parent of a child," passed with 57% of the vote. Although the text of the act asserts that it applies equally to same-sex and heterosexual couples living together outside of marriage, the Arkansas gay and lesbian community feels particularly targeted.

Single people who are not living with a sexual partner are still allowed to adopt and foster, and the prohibition does not apply to the guardianship of children. But there are no exceptions: the law covers adoptions and fostering through the state and private agencies, prevents second-parent adoption for the biological children of LGBT parents, and does not favor kin caregivers if they are part of an unmarried couple.


Sheila Cole, left, hopes to adopt her granddaughter with her partner Jennifer Owens.
                              Photos courtesy ACLU

The new initiative's history traces back to a policy of the Arkansas Child Welfare Agency Review Board that prevented gay people from serving as foster parents. After seven years of fighting through the courts, the state Supreme Court struck down the ban unanimously, writing, "There is no correlation between the health, welfare, and safety of foster children and the blanket exclusion of any individual who is a homosexual or who resides in a household with a homosexual." That decision prompted an unsuccessful attempt to ban same-sex adoption or fostering with a bill in the Arkansas legislature. Deciding to bypass the legislature and put the question to the state's voters, the Arkansas Family Council drafted the ballot initiative, revising it once to assure its certification.

"This law hurts families and children in many ways," Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said. "It takes away parents' right to decide for themselves who will adopt their children if they die, it denies the many children in Arkansas state care a chance at the largest possible pool of potential foster and adoptive homes, and denies couples who are living together but unmarried the chance to provide loving homes to children who desperately need them."

With a host of plaintiffs from families who will be affected by the law, the Arkansas ACLU brought suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on December 30 to challenge the constitutionality of the law. The suit is Cole, et al. v. Arkansas, et al. On its website, the ACLU profiles several of the families who hope that by sharing their stories, they will garner more support to overturn Act 1.

Sheila Cole, the lead plaintiff, lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her partner. She would like to adopt her granddaughter, who is in the Arkansas foster care system, and has taken foster parent classes with Oklahoma's Department of Human Services and passed a home study.

Stephanie Huffman and Wendy Rickman are raising two sons together, one of whom is 7-year-old with special needs whom they adopted from the state system five years ago. They are interested in adopting more children.


Cary and Trina Kelley, back, with their daughters and Cary's mother Vickie, front left, and her partner, Sophia. Cary and Trina want Sophia and Vickie, who live across the street, to be able to raise their daughters if they are unable to.

Cary and Trina Kelley of Fayetteville have two daughters, ages 2 and 4. They live across the road from Cary's mother, Vickie, and her partner, Sophia. The family has experienced loss: Cary was a passenger in a car accident that killed his brother. Recognizing how quickly circumstances can change, Cary and Trina would like the security of knowing Vickie and Sophia could adopt their daughters if anything happened to them. Trina spent much of her childhood in state care and wants her daughters to be in a loving home with their grandmother.

Kaytee Wright and Alan Leveritt live in Cabot and have been together five years, but do not want to marry. They both help raise Alan's daughter from a previous marriage. Kaytee was adopted from state care, and had hoped to adopt as well, but cannot because she and Alan are not married.

The ACLU and two other law firms are representing the plaintiffs on behalf of the ACLU Foundation of Arkansas. More information about the case and more detailed profiles on the plaintiffs can be found online.

The Arkansas Attorney General's office is defending Act 1 in court. The Arkansas Family Council, who drafted the proposed initiative, recently joined the defense with their Action Committee. Learn more about the group.

The Division of Children & Family Services in Arkansas' Department of Human Services is a CWLA member. Viwe more information about the division.

LOUISIANA

A recent Associated Press report explores "some innovation" in Louisiana's juvenile justice system. CWLA's juvenile justice specialists have been working with Rapides and Jefferson parishes, where only a quarter of youth in the system face "true delinquent" charges, according to research from the University of New Orleans. The goal is to get truancy and other nonviolent offenses dealt with outside of the courtroom. A new Neighborhood Accountability Board in Alexandria (Rapides Parish) will replace judges for minor, first-offense cases. This method could save the parish more than $3 million per offender, if it manages to lower the rate of subsequent offenses.

OHIO

When Janice Taylor was reunified with her children, she was showered with confetti. The celebration was from Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court's Family Drug Court, which helped her get sober after 20 years and regain custody of her six children. The program was highlighted in Cleveland's The Plain Dealer. Participants are mostly single mothers who have lost custody of their children because of drug abuse. A team of social workers and lawyers choose participants who haven't had success with more traditional child welfare services. The 10-year-old program is funded with a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The Young Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar is increasing adoption awareness with the Families Forever Project. So far this year, the YLD has held two "Family Fairs" to educate families about foster care and adoption, and encourage them to participate. The group, composed of lawyers under 36, helps children in other ways as part of their service to the public: the Cinderella Project solicits donations of gently worn formal gowns for economically disadvantaged high school students; a credit education course teaches students basic principles of money management; and a backpack drive donates school supplies to needy children.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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