Later this month, a bill seeking to repeal a 2000 law forbidding gay and lesbian couples (and indeed all unmarried couples) from adopting children will return to the legislature to make a second attempt at being heard by legislators.
Sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, the Forever Homes for Every Child bill made its first appearance in 2008, but did not make it out of committee and onto the House floor for debate. This year the bill is returning alongside the Common Ground Initiative, a set of six bills sponsored by gay rights group Equality Utah that seek to secure more rights for gay and transgender Utahns.
The initiative (so named because of its attempt to find agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on protections for gay and transgender people) includes bills seeking to extend housing and employment nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people; allow same-sex partners to sue in the case of wrongful death; and mandate public employer insurance plans to cover married spouse and domestic partners equally. Two additional bills seek to create a statewide domestic partner registry and clarify language in Utah’s constitutional gay marriage ban that lawmakers have argued forbids any legal recognition of same-sex couples in the state.
Although Chavez-Houck’s bill is not an official part of the initiative, Equality Utah helped draft it in 2008 and is lending its support to the bill again this legislative session.
Debbie and Reanna Thompson are among the many same-sex Utah couples with children who are watching the Common Ground Initiative — and particularly the Forever Homes bill — with interest and some anxiety. The Thompsons married in Montreal, Canada in 2004 and conceived their two-year-old son Liam in 2007 with the help of a sperm donor. Like nearly all such couples in the state they are faced with the following predicament: Debbie, Liam’s non-biological parent, is a legal stranger to her son. Under Utah law, Reanna’s mother, from whom the couple are estranged and who has never met Liam, has more rights to the child than the woman he calls “Mama.”
“[Reanna’s mother] would have first claim to this child if something happened to Reanna,” said Debbie. “According to the state of Utah, it would be better for my son to go into foster care or to go to a woman he’s never met than to stay with me. It’s incredibly punitive and vindictive and it’s one of the most frustrating things, and it’s scary to me. I don’t think anything will happen, but it certainly could.”
Although the couple is fortunate enough to have an employer who covers the family under one insurance plan, Debbie says that she still has to carry a copy of the couple’s legal guardianship agreement with her at all times. And even though the papers prove the couple’s intent to raise Liam together, they lack the full force a legal adoption would provide.
“It’s terrifying that somebody might say you don’t have the right to permit medical treatment or pick this child up from daycare,” said Debbie. “I always feel like I’m on the edge of being a full parent, a real parent.”
In fact, Debbie recalls that one lawyer the couple saw in trying to secure protections for their son recommended that Reanna give up all rights to her biological child and allow Debbie to become his legal guardian.
“Which is a horrible thing to ask the mother to do,” said Debbie.
Although the couple was not able to advocate for Chavez-Houck’s bill last year thanks to the rigors of raising a newborn child, they both say they will be very involved this year. They have already asked friends and family to write their representatives and local newspapers in support of the bill to “talk about the position that this punitive law has put us in.”
If passed, Chavez-Houck’s bill could put not only same-sex couples with children but the Utah Division of Child and Family Services in a better position. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah currently has 2,600 foster children and half that number of foster homes. Currently DCFS has 454 children it is seeking to place in permanent homes.
DCFS Director Duane Betournay told the paper that his department would prefer to look at unmarried, cohabiting parents “on a case-by-case basis” to determine if placing a child with such couples would be in that child’s best interest.
“To limit the number of homes we have available to us for possible adoption doesn’t really make sense in light of the number of children who we have in foster care awaiting adoption,” he said.
Chavez-Houck’s bill would still allow the state and private agencies to prefer married couples as adoptive or foster parents, and would allow such couples to adopt or foster a child with his or her biological parent(s)’ consent, or if that child is in the state’s care. It would also not interfere with the rights of single adults of any sexual orientation to adopt a child if a married couple is unavailable.