Piecing together how two moms or two dads fit into the picture.
By Jennifer Michael
Photos courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union
Lisa Johnston has worked in the early childhood field for 20 years, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that she realized she also wanted to make children a part of her home. Approaching 40 and involved in a loving relationship with a partner, Johnston decided foster parenting was the best route. Through her work at a day treatment program for infants who had been abused and neglected, she knew far too many children in her Missouri community were in need of loving homes.
She turned to the Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS), where she filled out the necessary paperwork and underwent a home study with her partner, with whom she shared an apartment. The couple enrolled in a nine-week course for prospective foster parents and attended seven of nine classes before the whole process came to a grinding halt. DSS denied Johnston’s application to become a foster parent because her partner was a woman.
“We were led to believe they understood our situation–that we were a couple,” Johnston says. “We chose to be pretty forthcoming about who we were. We didn’t think that mattered, because we were so highly qualified, and there is such a need.”
Johnston, with the representation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), took her case to the Jackson County Missouri Circuit Court. Earlier this year, the court overturned the DSS’s decision. According to the ACLU, part of the state’s reason for denying Johnston’s case was based on a state law banning sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, which was rendered unconstitutional two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court inLawrence v. Texas. But Missouri Circuit Judge Sandra C. Midkiff, in her 16-page ruling on Johnston’s case, said, “No moral conclusions may be drawn from a constitutionally unenforceable statue.”
DSS appealed Midkiff’s ruling, and the case is now pending in Missouri’s Supreme Court.
Johnston’s case is not unique. To become parents, many gay and lesbian people have had to plead their cases in court, move to communities that accept their desire to parent, or give up becoming parents altogether. Fortunately, most gay and lesbian individuals who seek to adopt have been successful, but state laws often are unclear about whether their partners can also adopt the child.
Controversy over gay parenting has simmered for decades. In 1977, Florida became the first state to ban all gay people–singles and couples–from adopting. Since then, other states have tried but failed to enact the same blanket restriction, including Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Mississippi permits single gays and lesbians to adopt but explicitly prohibits gay couples from doing so. Utah bans adoption by individuals who are cohabitating, effectively excluding all gay couples.
Few state laws address the issue of foster parenting. Arkansas and Missouri have statewide policies banning gay people from being considered as foster parents, although these laws are being challenged. Gays and lesbians can’t adopt in Florida, but they can serve as foster parents.
Gay parenting has become a hot topic inside state capitols, coming on the heels of 11 states successfully banning same-sex marriages through ballot initiatives in 2004. Many social conservatives hope the issue will rally voters in the same way that same-sex marriages have. Several ballot initiatives during the 2004 elections sought to restrict gay parenting, but none passed. As of last spring, many states were looking to bring the issue before voters again this November.
Ohio, for example, approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 banning gay marriage, and this year Ohio lawmakers drafted legislation banning all gays from adopting. The legislation died in committee last spring.
Greg Quinlan, founder of the Christian conservative Pro-Family Network in Ohio, told USA Today, “Now that we’ve defined what marriage is, we need to take that further and say children deserve to be in that relationship.”
CWLA has long affirmed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents are as well-suited to raise children as their heterosexual counterparts. Other mainstream national children’s health and welfare organizations have joined CWLA’s opposition to restrictions on gay parenting, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
Last winter, National Public Radio (NPR) invited Rob Woronoff, Program Director for CWLA’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Initiative, to explain CWLA’s stand on the issue of gay parenting and to counter comments made by other guests opposing the idea.
“This is a new issue that is really kind of growing out of the anti-gay marriage movement, but it’s a very different issue from marriage,” Woronoff told NPR listeners. “Finding permanent, loving homes for children is a very difficult task that all states face. To froth it up as a political controversy doesn’t do justice to the children at all. I think what these organizations that support these bans didn’t really anticipate is the unity of the opposition, because that unity really exists.”
What’s Best for Children?
The number of children living with gay or lesbian parents is hard to pin down–estimates range from between 1.6 million and 14 million children. The 2002 U.S. Census identified 600,000 same-sex households, with children living in 162,000 of these homes. One-third of lesbian couples and one-fifth of gay couples reported children under age 18 living with them. But the census numbers are believed to be low.
Many types of gay parenting situations exist. Gays and lesbians may adopt or become foster parents, or they may be granted de facto or “psychological” parenthood by the courts if the birth or adoptive parent consented to and fostered the parent-child relationship. Many gay and lesbian people also have custody and visitation rights for children they conceived during previous heterosexual relationships.
At the same time many gays and lesbians are fighting for the right to become parents, an estimated 518,000 children were in the foster care system, and 118,000 were waiting to be adopted as of September 30, 2004, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau. During fiscal year 2004, an estimated 51,000 children were adopted with the help of the public child welfare system.
“Most prospective adoptive parents are hoping to adopt babies,” writes CWLA President and CEO Shay Bilchik in a foreword in Too High A Price: The Case Against Restricting Gay Parenting, published this year by the ACLU. “Often, they do not feel they have the capacity to care for the waiting children who are older, many of whom have significant physical or emotional needs or are part of a group of siblings–in other words, most of the nearly 119,000 children waiting to be adopted.”
Bilchik adds, “We simply cannot afford to systematically exclude any group of caring and loving people from an already limited pool of prospective parents. Laws and policies that ban lesbians and gay men from adopting and fostering fly in the face of well-developed child welfare policy and standards by depriving children of willing and able parents.”
Three years ago, CWLA added to its advocacy efforts the support of children, adults, and families who are LGBTQ. CWLA, in partnership with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, has provided education, technical assistance, program coordination, and advocacy for CWLA member agencies and others to support the needs of LGBTQ children, youth, adults, and families.
CWLA has filed amicus briefs in court cases challenging bans on adoption or foster care by gay and lesbian individuals and couples, including Lisa Johnston’s case since it has been appealed to Missouri’s Supreme Court.
At the same time CWLA has increased its advocacy efforts, social conservative groups have turned up the volume on their insistence that the optimum permanent living situation for a child is with both a mother and a father. The following is a sampling of published comments to this effect made by conservative groups:
- “When same-sex couples adopt, they are making a conscious decision to deny that child a mother or a father. Both play an important role, and kids do best when they have a mom and a dad,” said Micah Clark, Executive Director of the American Family Association of Indiana, in theIndianapolis Star.
- “Children do best with a mother and a father…Kids would be better off in foster care than with a homosexual couple,” said Mary Anne Hackett, President of the Concerned Catholics of Illinois, in the Chicago Tribune.
- “Outside of whether you have heterosexual versus gay households, the general studies on children being raised in a single-gender versus a duel-gender household are undisputed–that children do best when they’re raised with a mom and a dad,” said Mathew Staver, President and General Counsel for the Liberty Council, based in Orlando, Florida, on NPR.
- “I believe…research…shows very clearly that kids need a mom and a dad, and more importantlyOeit’s a matter of common sense,” said Charmaine Yoest, Vice President of External Relations at the Family Research Council, on NPR.
- “Children can receive love from gay couples, [but] studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family by a man and a woman,” the New York Times quoted President George W. Bush.
According to the ACLU, the studies often cited by opponents of gay parenting are studies on the impact of single, heterosexual parenthood on children, versus married, heterosexual parenthood on children. These studies have not analyzed the development of children raised by same-sex couples, the ACLU says.
In reality, the ACLU points out, scientists have accumulated a body of research over the last 20 years evaluating the parenting abilities of lesbian and gay parents and how well their children develop. “The studies found, without exception, that gay people are just as capable parents and that children raised by lesbians and gay men are just as healthy and well-adjusted as other children,” according to Too High A Price: The Case Against Restricting Gay Parenting,
Working with Prospective Gay Parents
A May 2006 ABC News/Time magazine poll reveals a clear divide among the American people on the issue of gay adoption. Forty-nine percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt, but 48% are opposed to the practice. The poll also shows support for gay adoption is highest in the Northeast (63%) and lowest in the South (41%), and that 56% of women are supportive of gay adoption, compared with 42% of men.
On the other hand, support for gay adoption appears to be growing nationally. According to the ABC News/Time poll, support for gay adoption was 14% in 1977, 35% in 1998, and is now close to 50%.
To take a closer look at policies and practices toward gay parenting within child welfare agencies, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute conducted a national study of adoption agency directors. Looking at data from 307 agencies, based on their practice in 1999-2000, the Institute found 60% accepted applications from gay and lesbian applicants, and some actively reached out to them. About 40% reported placing children with gay or lesbian parents, although most agencies did not keep specific statistics on the sexual orientation of their clients.
Most agencies indicated in the Institute’s study that they would work with prospective gay and lesbian parents, but 84% did not engage in active recruitment or outreach. Many agencies also reported they were unsure about whether or how to reach out to prospective gay or lesbian parents. Nearly half indicated an interest in receiving training to work with prospective gay and lesbian parents.
Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Family Builders by Adoption, in Berkeley, California, developed a curriculum about six years ago for child welfare workers to help them work with prospective gay and lesbian parents, and has since used it in training workshops around the country.
“There was a huge need for understanding about how to work with gay and lesbian families,” she recalls, “and I heard from lots of child welfare workers and social workers who wanted to work with gay and lesbian families but felt like they didn’t know how, and they were a little afraid. They weren’t sure how to ask certain questions.”
Child welfare workers, for example, often explain they’re not certain how to do a home study on a gay family or how to evaluate the quality of a marriage or a relationship if there is no marriage certificate. Misconceptions include the belief that women can’t parent boys and men can’t parent girls. Social workers also raise concerns about kids not wanting gay parents. Jacobs tells them, “Sure, sometimes we have kids who say they don’t want two moms or two dads, but overwhelmingly we have kids who are really happy about having two moms or two dads.”
It’s not unusual to come across social workers who have very strong biases against gay parenting, Jacobs says. “There’s an element of social work training about putting your personal biases aside and being professional…that’s part of being a social worker, and yet we often run into people who feel, on this issue, self-righteous enough that they can have that bias.”
Jacobs says her training workshops were cancelled at three different state-funded conferences after local leaders determined it was a topic they didn’t want discussed on their bill. “It was a political hot potato, and at the last minute they cancelled the workshop. The reason I was called in was because there was a huge need…and huge interest.”
But Jacobs notes that if social workers feel they need training on the issue of gay parenting, avenues are available for them. “If you can’t get it in your state, then you have to go out of your stateOeto attend national conferences where you can at least get to a workshop on the subject.”
Lisa Johnston advises that agencies should have clear policies in place on the subject of prospective gay or lesbian parents. Otherwise, agencies and prospective parents could wind up fighting long court battles similar to hers. She doesn’t expect a decision in Missouri DSS’s appeal of her case until some time next year.
“If you’re going to have a policy, have it in writing, not just a verbal policy that is interpreted differently year-to-year, depending on who is in charge of the division,” she says.
And, she adds, such policies should not exclude people based on their sexual orientation. “Just because you are gay or lesbian doesn’t mean you are going to have children who are messed up or have more challenges in life. They’re stigmatized because they are foster children. Period. They’re children. They’re going to be teased about something in their life. It’s how you help them work through that that makes a difference.”
Jennifer Michael is Managing Editor of Children’s Voice.