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Back in Court

Foster advocates fear Florida's ban on gay adoptions puts children in jeopardy. By Beth Kracklauer



On March 14, viewers across the country tuned in to ABC’s Primetime Thursday to watch Rosie O’Donnell talk openly, for the first time on the air, about her sexuality. They ended up seeing another story, too—one that’s driven O’Donnell and thousands of others to speak out. It’s the story of Steve Lofton and Roger Croteau, a gay couple raising five children with HIV, three of them from the Florida foster care system. Though they adopted Wayne, eight, and Ernie, five, in Oregon, Lofton and Croteau are not able to adopt Frank, 14, Tracy, 14, and Bert, 10, because Florida is the only U.S. state with a law prohibiting all gay men and lesbians from adopting. Because Bert—who has been with the couple since infancy—is under 14 and no longer tests positive for HIV, he has recently been deemed “adoptable.” The state now wants to place him with another family.


To keep Bert and others like him from losing the only families they’ve ever known, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 1999 on behalf of Lofton and three other Florida men. In August 2001, a federal judge in Miami upheld the Florida ban, which has been in effect since 1977. An appeal will be heard later this year. In the meantime, civil rights and child welfare advocates are calling on Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Department of Children and Families secretary Kathleen Kearney to support the abolishment of the 25-year-old ban.


Eric Ferrero of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project reports that a parallel campaign is underway, aimed at Florida voters who will be electing a new state legislature in November. Ferrero says, “They hate it that Florida is associated with this kind of bigotry in the face of a child welfare system in crisis.” The hope is that by next January, when the new legislature convenes, its members will see that the ban on gay adoptions not only alienates voters, but also jeopardizes the welfare of waiting children. Bolstering efforts are statements signed by nine former Florida legislators who voted 25 years ago for the ban. They read, “We now realize that we were wrong. This discriminatory law prevents children from being adopted into loving, supportive homes—and we hope it will be overturned.”


Why is this case important?

There are approximately 568,000 children in foster care nationwide; of the more than 25,000 children in Florida’s foster care system, 3,400 are available for adoption immediately. According to Joan Heifetz Hollinger, director of the Child Advocacy Program at the Law School of the University of California, Berkeley, “Heterosexual married couples in Florida are not lining up to adopt these children.” Many are older. Some have physical or cognitive impairments, or have experienced abuse. She considers the ACLU’s appeal a challenging one to win, however, because the U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized sexual orientation as a protected category, as it has race, color, religion, national origin, and gender. The repeal campaign looks more promising, Hollinger believes, “because the message from the federal district court decision—the one now being appealed—was to go and convince the Florida legislature to enact a more tolerant policy, one that focuses on the needs of children.”


In his August 2001 decision upholding Florida’s ban, Judge James King said, “Plaintiffs have not asserted that they can demonstrate that homosexual families are equivalently stable, are able to provide proper gender identification, or are no more socially stigmatizing than married heterosexual families.” Conservative groups argue that a strong enough case for homosexual families simply cannot be made. In a public statement issued in March, James Dobson of Focus on the Family contended, “Children raised in a stable, married, heterosexual home do better than children raised in any other type of household.”


Laws regarding gay and lesbian adoption vary from state to state—even from county to county. While Florida is the only state that bars gay and lesbian individuals from adopting, Mississippi and Utah both have laws that prohibit same-sex couples from adopting. New Hampshire repealed its law banning gay men and lesbians from adopting in 1999, and, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s Web site, 19 other states and the District of Columbia are “open to adoption by gay and lesbian people.” (For more information on adoption laws in your state, go to www.hrc.org.)


David Brodzinsky, director of the Foster Care Counseling Project at Rutgers University, maintains, “There are at least 30 studies now looking at kids raised by gay and lesbian parents, and they all converge on the same finding: these are not children who show problems of adjustment. There’s no evidence of gender-identity problems.” For Brodzinsky, the key factor in good parenting is not sexual orientation, but permanency: “Living with the impermanency of foster care is much more of a risk factor for long-term problems than is growing up in an adoptive home, period.”


The American Academy of Pediatrics recently joined the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and other child welfare organizations in calling for an end to adoption policies that limit the pool of potential parents on the basis of sexual orientation. In the coming months, these organizations will be keeping a close watch on Florida. Ferrero is confident: “Florida is where we’re going to solidify a national consensus against restricting gay parents and preventing kids from finding permanent homes.” As the Lofton-Croteau family fights to stay together, their plight has implications for adoptive families nationwide.


Beth Kracklauer is Adoptive Families’ editor.


Your Opinion Counts

The outcome of the Florida case could well influence policymaking in your state. Here’s how you can stay informed and make your voice heard:

* Visit www.LetHimStay.com to learn more about the Lofton-Croteau family and their appeal. Send an e-mail to let Governor Jeb Bush and Department of Children and Families secretary Kathleen Kearney know what you think.


* To learn about laws and policies regarding gay adoption in your area, consult local attorneys and adoption agencies. For a state-by-state breakdown of laws and practices, visit the Human Rights Campaign’s Web site at www.hrc.org.

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