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Gay parents face uphill custody battles

When Darin Adams met his wife at Brigham Young University, the recently returned missionary was attracted to the cultured young Swedish girl who was in the country to get married, or get her education and go back to Europe. The handsome young man took his young bride to the Salt Lake City Temple, had their first two children and lived in Orem. A more picture-perfect Mormon family could not be found in all of Utah.

Or so it appeared.
“I never hid the fact that I was gay from my Mormon leaders. Even before my mission they counseled me to go on a mission, get married and have sex with a woman. My bishop told me that being intimate with a woman would fix everything,” Adams said. “I never told my wife until after we moved to Connecticut.”

While attending BYU, Adams took part in some so-called reparative therapy, and after coming out to his wife, she encouraged him to pursue it again. For a year Adams received weekly counseling from his bishop, saw a therapist and tried to change his sexuality. He read more than a dozen books about changing his sexuality and he worked with online support groups.

It didn’t work.

Although the family had grown with another child, Adams was finally coming to the realization that he would not become straight. He told his wife he was developing feelings for another man and that the marriage wasn’t going to survive.

“My wife told me she was moving to Utah and she was taking the kids. She told me she wouldn’t get divorced in Connecticut. I didn’t try to stop her and for a while I just visited the kids every chance I got, but eventually I knew I had to be near them,” Adams said.

He moved back to Utah County to be near the kids where he began the divorce proceedings.

“Things got very ugly very quickly,” Adams said.

He endured false accusations of prostitution, child abuse and other sexually deviant behaviors, none of which were ever prosecuted. His sexuality was routinely brought up in court evaluations, and his ex-wife tried to maintain full custody of the children.

“The kids started displaying disturbing behavior. It was obvious that their mother was sabotaging them and only God knows what she told them,” Adams said. “They vandalized my home repeatedly, and they just showed behavior that is not normal for kids that are only 12, 10 and 8 years old.”

When it became apparent that she was going to try and take the kids out of the country, Adams knew he had to seek full custody.

“The legal costs mounted, and trying to convince court evaluators, psychiatrists and judges in Utah County that it’s OK that I’m gay and the best option for the children is difficult,” Adams said.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in fighting against preconceived notions about sexuality in Utah courts.

Oftentimes, the discrimination is not overt  and someone’s sexuality alone is not enough to stop a custody hearing, said Lauren Barros, a family law attorney who deals with queer-related family issues in Utah.

However, sometimes the discrimination is much more hidden and subtle, she said.

“Maybe if a man comes out after a divorce and the woman remarries a man, but the gay man can’t marry his partner, the court could somehow hold that against him and interpret that as somehow being morally wrong,” Barros said.

Coming from a religious or Mormon background can also often lead to the court interpreting the children as being better off with the mother, who oftentimes was the primary caregiver before the divorce, Barros said.

However, finding the balance between standing up for her beliefs and seeking custody of her child was a tough battle for Heidi Shelton, an openly lesbian mother who tried to petition the court for primary custody of her child.

“My lawyers told me, when the judge’s name was given, that I would only stand a chance if I went back in the closet and told him I had repented my ways and had become straight again,” Shelton said. “I couldn’t do that. And I lost the case. I have visitation, but I am not the primary legal guardian.”

The custody system is dependent on the judge, which is a random selection, and some judges are more open-minded than others, said Laura Milliken Gray, a family law attorney.

“Things are getting better, especially in Salt Lake County,” Gray said. “But the farther out from the county you go the more of an issue you might have.”

Each case is different and unique to the court, family and individuals, Ben Visser, the director of the Utah Gay Fathers Association.

“I think one of the problems is that men often feel guilty after coming out and are willing to sign everything away,” Visser said. “I think they come to regret that later and it becomes an even bigger battle.”

The Utah Gay Fathers Association was started by Visser and Adams, and it offers support to all types of gay fathers and those that are expecting to become fathers.

“We see so many cases and each person’s story varies, but I can honestly say there are plenty of men out there who face a tougher court battle because they are gay,” Visser said.

Although his sexuality was brought up in a Utah County court during a custody hearing, David Salazar said it didn’t play a role and he didn’t face any discrimination.

“I didn’t face any problems because of my sexuality and I was treated very fairly,” Salazar said. “But everybody’s experience is going to be different. Mine just happened to be positive.”

For Adams the battle is an ongoing struggle, and the legal costs are becoming overwhelming.

“I can’t tell you how many different legal fees, lawyer fees and fees for court-appointed psychiatrists I’ve had to pay,” Adams said. “But I can’t stop now. I need to protect my children and that is my absolute priority.”

A fund has been set up for Adams and can be found at tinyurl.com/utahdads.

“My sexuality has been brought up every step of the way. I’ve worked with some really terrific people who are really helpful, but there’s no doubt that the bias is still present in the court system in Utah,” Adams said. “I just need my kids to be in a happy and healthy environment, my sexuality shouldn’t be a factor.”

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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