A gay issue?

May 30, 2007 at 12:00 am

When Michigan's second-parent adoption bill reached the House Judiciary Committee this session, Rep. Bettie Cook Scott admits she was "on the fence" about it and wasn't sure how she'd vote.

So the east side Detroit Democrat studied the measure that would permit two unmarried adults to each legally adopt a child. It would change the current law that restricts adoption to married, female-male couples or to a single person who could be straight or gay. She thought about how the proposal could be considered as formal recognition of gay couples as it would allow both partners to be legally considered a child's parents.

She took into account her religious beliefs and then decided they had no place in determining her vote on what is essentially a family issue and would offer children legal, medical and financial security.

"Ideally, parents are a mother and father," Scott says. "That's ideal. But short of that, I believe that any person who demonstrates the care, the intellect, the physical and emotional stability should be allowed to adopt a child and introduce them into their family."

Scott was one of the eight Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voting in favor of the measure earlier this month in contrast to the five Republican members who voted against it. Pundits give the measure, introduced by Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield), a decent chance of passing in the House but virtually no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Second-parent adoptions are allowed by either appellate court ruling or statute in just 10 states and the District of Columbia. In Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin, appellate courts have ruled against them, and in 15 others, trial courts have granted them at least once.

They are widely supported by child welfare groups who consider them crucial to providing legal, financial and medical benefits for adoptive children.

"This is an opportunity for children to be adopted by two loving parents and to be protected by two loving parents," says Maxine Thome, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

But second-parent adoption is opposed by conservatives who especially object to what they call the recognition of gay couples. "I think the same-sex issue plays into the opinion this way: They're not married. A single-sex couple cannot marry in Michigan so that's not a marriage. They would not qualify as a couple for adoption," says state Sen. Bill Hardiman (R-Kentwood). "I don't see that our current law is penalizing the child. I see that our current law upholds marriage."

Gay rights and advocacy organizations promote second-parent adoption's benefits to children in any type of nontraditional family but also applaud how the law doesn't "punish" children whose parents are in same-sex relationships. Since those couples cannot legally marry, their children are not entitled to the same legal and economic benefits as children of married couples.

"Second-parent adoption creates legal relationships between parents and children. It doesn't create a legal relationship between the two parents," says Beverly Davidson, the founder of the Ann Arbor-based Coalition for Adoption Rights Equality, Inc., who is raising a daughter with her partner. "How the family is configured doesn't have anything to do with how the kids are going to do. They're going to do best when they have two parents who can legally protect and parent them."

But for same-sex couples who are parents, only the biological or adoptive parent usually is able to provide health insurance or grant permission for medical treatment for the child, for example, and only that parent could provide pension or Social Security benefits for the child. Like any child who is legally the child of only one adult, the child of a same-sex couple would become a ward of the state if the adoptive parent died until the courts could grant guardianship to someone. In West Bloomfield, Marlowe B'sheart and her partner, Elijah, are raising three daughters and have faced such issues. Marlowe is the adoptive parent for Ani, 4, and Moby, 2, while Eli is the adoptive parent for Zora, 10 months.

The women, who have been together nearly 14 years, were married in a spiritual and religious ceremony 11 years ago and later legally married in Canada. Eli is a graphic designer. Marlowe was a teacher. B'sheart is a last name they took together."Since Moby was born, I've been home. She was born very prematurely and we decided that one of us had to be home full time and that it wasn't an option for her to be at day care," Marlowe says.

With Eli earning more money but with Ani and Moby on Marlowe's health insurance, the women had a tough choice to make. When Eli talked to her employer about leaving, they offered health insurance to the entire family.

"We're very, very grateful but we're very lucky. Certainly there are other families who have faced our situation or a similar situation and are not given an option like that," Marlowe says.

Second-parent adoption is part of a national wave of legislation that is improving other legal and civil rights for gays, lesbians and others. This year, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, nondiscrimination protections have surged for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendereds. Iowa, Oregon and Colorado have added protections for those categories and the Vermont Legislature amended its existing laws to include transgendered people.

"I think the issue of adoption for our families fits into the larger picture of our efforts to seek equality in family recognition," says Roberta Sklar, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "There are a wide range of legal issues that fall under that umbrella — everything from marriage to civil unions to domestic partnership issues that have been looked at like taxation and inheritance rights and medical power of attorney. We believe that all of our people have the right to determine the configuration of their own families."

But the issue of second-parent adoption also highlights one of many types of discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. "There is certainly a feeling of resentment. Because we do not have the legal right to marriage, we have to adopt our own children or readopt our own children. It's an economically expensive process and it's a discriminatory process," Sklar says. "At the end of the line, there is not legal protection that is as strong as the legal protection of marriage."

Efforts to "create" legal protections with power of attorney, wills or even couples incorporating are expensive. "There are multiple levels of economic jeopardy," Sklar says. "It comes on top of what you are trying to do in securing your family and securing your child's well-being or your partner's well-being in the case of marriage."

In southeast Michigan, it's not unusual for couples to face bi-national issues as well. Duane, for example, is American. His partner, Kirk, is Canadian. They essentially live in Duane's suburban Detroit home but Kirk must return to Canada every 30 days to keep his health insurance intact. Kirk, who is unemployed, also is only supposed to be in the United States for six months of each year. (Metro Times agreed not to use their real names because of the legal issues they could face if identified.)

The men have made what arrangements they can to protect themselves in the event of illness or death. Both are estranged from their families and want to provide for each other.

"We have medical power of attorney and legal power of attorney but those both end upon death," Duane says.

Since Kirk is here illegally, Duane isn't sure if he can re-title his home in Kirk's name as well. "Would that trigger anything with immigration or the border? We're a little leery of these things. If something happened to me, my family would be in here and throw him out. He wouldn't even have his own clothes," Duane says.

In many cases, the "second parent" adopting is the same-sex partner of the child's biological or adoptive parent, but can also be another person seeking a legal relationship for the child.

"While it clearly has implications for the rights of gay and lesbian people, it has implications for the rights of unmarried couples," says Frank Vandervort, who teaches in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan. "This is an issue that deserves public examination and discussion, no matter how you may feel."

Vandervort, who has spent 20 years working with children in the state's welfare system, has a case at the clinic involving a 3-year-old boy whose grandfather adopted him after his mother died of an overdose. But as the grandfather is approaching 70 and suffered a stroke, he would like to arrange for a longtime family friend — a woman the boy calls "mom" — to also legally adopt the boy. That way, if the grandfather died, custodial arrangements would be set.But situations like that are overshadowed by the "gay" aspect of the legislation, Vandervort admits, and are costing it support. "It's overshadowing because, of course, it makes great political theater and fodder. The right-wing politicians love to get on this issue about the destruction of the traditional family. Of course, the reality is that there never was and never will be a traditional family," he says. "Most people can't separate what's best for the children from their own personal, conservative beliefs when it comes to same-sex couples."

Michigan courts — specifically Washtenaw County — allowed second-parent adoption until five years ago when then-newly appointed Chief Judge Archie Brown banned them. According to published reports at the time, Washtenaw was the only one of Michigan's 83 counties to grant second-parent adoption. Between 1996 and Brown's ban, 87 second-parent adoptions were granted in Washtenaw County.

Two years later, the issue reached Lansing. Hardiman asked Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox for a ruling on whether same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts were valid in Michigan and if Michigan's adoption statutes would apply to such couples. Cox said no.

Since 1993, appellate courts in six states and the District of Columbia have ruled that existing laws allow second-parent adoption. In 2004, California, Connecticut and Vermont adopted laws legalizing second-parent adoption. Earlier this year, Colorado's Legislature passed one, and Gov. Bill Ritter signed it this month.

"The governor approaches legislation through the prism of what's best for all people in Colorado," says Evan Dreyer, Ritter's spokesman. "On this bill, he looked at it as a former prosecutor who saw the ills of kids growing up in unstable homes. This was an opportunity to provide some stability for at-risk kids."

Joan Mahoney, a Wayne State University law professor, says support for second-parent adoption is growing because society is changing.

"I think it's mostly an acceptance of same-sex couples and a recognition that two people who are raising a child together are both the child's parents whether they are the same sex or the opposite sex and whether one is the biological parent," Mahoney says. "It's also a realization that children need to maintain legal relationships with people that they have parental and emotional relationships with."

Meanwhile, families like the B'shearts will keep lobbying for second-parent adoption and continue raising their children.

"The reality is, there are many, many same sex-parented families in this state and in every state in this country. There will continue to be single sex-parented families regardless of what legislation exists," Marlow B'sheart says. "We need to put the protection of children first regardless of what people's personal opinions are about gays and lesbians or about gays and lesbian's parenting. We need to simply accept the reality of the diversity of families in our community and seek to protect all children."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]