Boo Hissssss Arkansas!

December 3, 2008 at 9:16 pm (Uncategorized) ()

Arkansas adoption ban passes despite shortage of homes for needy children

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Anne Shelley and Dr. Robin Ross are unwinding after a jampacked day of ferrying 4-year-old daughter Eva Mae from preschool to ice-skating lessons to speech therapy.

“It’s pretty much your mundane American family,” said Shelley, 46, over a dinner of barbecue at their home near the Ozarks

But not everyone sees their domestic situation as a hefty slice of apple pie. Arkansas residents recently voted to ban people who are “cohabitating outside of a valid marriage,” as Shelley and Ross do, from being foster parents or adopting children as these women did.

The measure was written to prohibit straight and gay people who are living together from adopting or becoming foster parents, but its real objective, child welfare experts say, is to bar same-sex couples like Shelley and Ross, 52, from raising children—even if it means youngsters who desperately need families will wait longer.

“We don’t have enough quality homes as it is, and now we’re going to place more restrictions?” asked Susan Hoffpauir, president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “A lot of us are still shell-shocked by this.”

While the Nov. 4 vote to ban gay marriage in California grabbed the headlines, it is same-sex parenting that is heating up as the next skirmish in the nation’s culture wars. Last week, a Florida judge struck down that state’s decades-old law preventing gays and lesbians from adopting.

Nationwide, laws on the issue are a grab bag. Florida had been the only state that had a law specifically disallowing gay individuals from adoption, although they are allowed to be foster parents. In Utah, only heterosexual, married couples can adopt. North Dakota law permits child-placement agencies to rule out prospective adoptive parents based on religious or moral objection.

Conversely, in Illinois, prospective foster and adoptive parents can be single or married, and the state’s Department of Children and Family Services cannot use sexual orientation as a basis for exclusion.

Still, many Americans are opposed to placing kids in gay households, and social conservatives hope the issue will rally voters in the same way that same-sex marriage has in recent elections.

In Arkansas, some 3,700 children are in state custody, taken from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Of those, 960 kids (average age: 8.5 years) are available for adoption, said Julie Munsell of the state Department of Human Services. Of the 1,100 foster homes, one-third are headed by single people.

But beyond the state system, the ban set to take effect Jan. 1 will thwart private adoptions of children like Eva Mae, left at a Vietnamese orphanage with nothing but a yellow blanket and a gaping hole where her upper lip should have been. Moreover, opponents say the new law could jeopardize a wide range of non-traditional living arrangements, such as co-habitating grandparents raising grandchildren, and are not sure how far-reaching the impact will be.

However, such scenarios are a “smokescreen,” said John Thomas, vice president of the Arkansas Family Council, a conservative group that pushed to get the initiative on the ballot after it had failed several times in the legislature. The real issue, he said, is that the state has to set the bar higher when it comes to finding homes for children.

“I understand that there is a lack of homes, but I refuse to believe that the choice is between a horrible situation and a so-so situation,” Thomas said from the group’s Little Rock headquarters. The council took its message directly to churches, speaking out against “the gay agenda.”

But finding potential homes for foster children is a continual challenge across the country—especially for children who are older and have special needs. Some 129,000 U.S. children are in foster care, and the only criteria should be who can best provide a loving, permanent home, according to Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

In a recent report, the non-partisan group concluded that a national ban on gay adoptions could add $87 million to $130 million to foster care expenditures annually because these children would then be living in other types of institutional care, such as group homes.

“On its face, this [Arkansas] law is just crazy,” Pertman said. “I fear what will happen if other states see this as a model.”

Social conservatives say the state could alleviate the shortage of foster and adoptive parents by stepping up efforts to recruit better candidates. “We have the opportunity to create the very best families,” Thomas said. “That’s what we should be aiming for.”

Still, a broad coalition of child-advocacy organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics—came out against the ban, as did Gov. Mike Beebe and former President Bill Clinton. Polls, too, predicted its defeat.

So, on Election Night, Shelley and Ross—who have been together for nine years—were cautiously optimistic. Then they were stunned. The measure passed in all but two counties.

“Do I believe that most people in this state hate me and my child? No,” said Ross, a psychiatrist. “Do I believe that the Christian right is more organized here? Yes.”

Eva Mae is sprawled out on the living room floor, intently working a puzzle, oblivious to all the adult anxiety.

The two women traveled to Vietnam in 2007, returning with a lethargic 2-year-old, who, because of a cleft lip and palate, could not swallow or talk and had not been outside since she was born.

Eva Mae endured several surgeries—and while her speech is still difficult to understand, she has all but caught up to her peers in other developmental areas. “She is very smart,” said Shelley, a former community organizer turned stay-at-home mom.

The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing a legal challenge to the ban. But people are afraid to bring attention to their families, said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas.

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