March 12, 2010 at 12:41 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Adoption bill aims to protect LGBT parents, kids

Martin Gill (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

A tearful moment interrupted a congressional panel discussion on LGBT adoption Thursday when a gay foster parent described how state officials in Florida were threatening to take away his two children.

Martin Gill of Miami and his partner are seeking to adopt two young brothers — referred to John and James Doe in court papers — for whom they’ve cared for six years. Because a 1977 Florida statute prohibits gays from adopting, Gill has filed a lawsuit against the state in attempt to overturn the law and adopt the two children.

After showing slides of his children decorating a Christmas tree and dressed as Batman for Halloween, Gill recalled how during an intermediary court hearing the state attorney “made it all too clear” that he couldn’t remain the caregiver should the lawsuit fail.

“They answered that if the court allows the ban to stand, the state would immediately get a court order to remove these kids from our home, and they would be made available for adoption,” Gill said.

Holding back tears, Gill said the judge pressed further on whether some other kind of permanent guardianship could be available, but the response from the counsel was, “No, I don’t think it is.”

“To that, there was an audible gasp in the court room,” he said. “I felt my own heart drop.”

The intermediary court considering the case could make its decision public at any time. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed the lawsuit, is expecting the case to continue to the Florida Supreme Court.

Knowing that at age 4 the older child had to care for the younger one because they had no parents, Gill said his biggest fear is that the state would send the two children to separate homes.

“The lives of these two young boys would be completely devastated,” he said. “What is ironic under the current law is that how in the state of Florida, they would fulfill the goal of permanency for these two young children by splitting them up.”

To address the situation and others like it, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) has introduced the Every Child Deserves a Family Act. The bill would restrict federal funds for states — including Florida — if they have laws or practices that discriminate in adoption on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

During the panel discussion intended to highlight the bill, Stark said discrimination shouldn’t take place in states that have statutes prohibiting LGBT people from adopting or where discrimination takes place without guidance from the law.

“Standards in adoption and foster care should only reflect the child’s best interest, nothing else,” Stark said. “Too many children need a loving home and we just should not close any doors.”

On March 8, Stark reintroduced the Every Child Deserves a Family Act after having previously introduced the bill last year. The new legislation makes technical changes and is intended to ensure that children won’t face discrimination on the basis of their own sexual orientation and gender identity as they’re placed into homes.

The original legislation has 14 co-sponsors that are expected to carry to the new legislation, H.R. 4806. Proponents are also working on a Senate companion bill that could be introduced before lawmakers break for recess this month.

Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, said passing the legislation would enable thousands of children in foster care to find families.

Chrisler said a half million children are living in foster care throughout the U.S. and 120,000 of them are available for adoption. But each year, she noted, around 25,000 children “age out” of the system without finding parents.

“And yet, while there is a shortage of qualified foster and adoptive parents for these children in need, some states categorically exclude thousands of prospective parents simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status,” she said.

Florida is the only state that has a statute explicitly prohibiting adoption by gays and lesbians. Other states, including Utah and Arkansas, have laws prohibiting unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children.

But Chrisler said the majority of states have no laws to speak to whether LGBT people can adopt, which can leaves children in foster care “vulnerable to the individual biases of agencies, case workers and judges.”

As the Every Child Deserves a Family Act builds support, litigation to rectify the situations in certain states is proceeding. Leslie Cooper, an ACLU senior staff attorney, said in addition to the Florida case, another ACLU lawsuit is pending in Arkansas to overturn the law preventing unmarried cohabitating couples from adopting.

But Cooper said lawsuits aren’t “the way to fully resolve this issue,” noting the cost of cases and the difficulty of litigation in states without specific statutes barring LGBT adoption.

“Litigation can be extremely effective and chip away at this problem, and hopefully in some states, resolve the issue,” she said. “But they aren’t the answer and can’t solve this problem in any stretch. A more global solution like this bill is what we need.”

Two panelists during the discussion presented research showing that the sexual orientation of parents has no impact on their children and many LGBT people would consider adoption if it were available to them.

Charlotte Patterson, a lesbian psychology professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in LGBT families, said 36 percent of lesbians are mothers, 16 percent of gay man are fathers and 40 to 50 percent of gays and lesbians say they would consider becoming parents.

“Children really do well in lesbian and gay parented homes as compared to demographically similar homes parented by heterosexual adults,” she said.

Patterson said growing up in LGBT households has no influence on children’s relationships with their parents, siblings and peers, nor does it affect their gender development, such as whether they want to play with traditionally male or female toys.

“The consensus here is extraordinarily clear,” she said. “Kids are well adjusted. There’s really no need to justify any kind of discrimination.”

Following the discussion, Patterson told DC Agenda studies often touted by social conservatives claiming that biological parents are better than same-sex couples at raising children are misleading.

“In general, what they’re referring to is research about kids growing up with single heterosexual parents and kids growing up with heterosexual couples,” she said. “In those studies, there are usually no openly gay or lesbian people, but the results of the studies are often used to make inferences about what kids in gay and lesbian parented families would do. That’s a mistake, of course.”

Gary Gates, a research fellow at the Williams Institute, a think-tank on sexual orientation at the University of California, Los Angeles, had similar data on the number of gays and lesbians with children and those wanting to adopt.

A common misconception, Gates said, is that it’s mostly LGBT people who are white that want to raise children, as opposed to LGBT people who belong to racial minority groups.

“All the data that we know about parenting by LGBT people and same-sex couples shows that, in fact, child-rearing is much more common in people of color,” he said. “So particularly African-Americans and Latinos and Latinas, they’re twice as likely as their white counterparts to say that they’ve raised a child.”

Regarding the full population, Gates said about one million LGBT people in the United States are raising around two million children.

The numbers are different when looking just at same-sex couples. Based on U.S. census data, Gates said about 112,000 same-sex couples throughout the United States are raising around 250,000 children.

But Gates also said the data show more same-sex couples raise children in states other than where LGBT people tend to live — often West or East Coast states with more gay friendly laws.

“What that also tells you is that same-sex couples are raising kids in states that have some of the most restrictive and challenging legal environments for gay and lesbian people raising children,” Gates said. “Many of the states with relatively high fractions of same-sex couples raising kids are very both politically and socially conservative.”

Also speaking at the panel was Nakea Paige, an 18-year-old high school student in D.C. who grew up in the foster care system. Although she’s bound this fall for Michigan State University to study biochemical engineering, Paige said her childhood was difficult because she never found a permanent home.

“I’ve been in one group home and three foster homes within three years, and having lived in three different places in three years has been a very scary experience,” she said.

Paige said one foster mother wouldn’t allow her to stay because she wasn’t receiving the full amount of compensation she thought she would receive. The foster mother had given a 30-day notice to leave, but Paige said she didn’t know about the notice until it was time for her to go.

Following the panel discussion, Paige told DC Agenda she wouldn’t have minded living with LGBT parents.

“It wouldn’t have bothered me, basically because it’s a family,” she said. “As long as I have somebody there to love me as a child, and them as a parent, then I’m fine with it.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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