Efforts increase to allow joint adoption by unmarried couples in Michigan

By BECKY McKENDRY

Capital News Service

LANSING – A bill in the legislature, public support and an expected federal ruling may soon tip the balance in favor of unmarried couples looking to adopt children together.

Such second parent adoptions can involve heterosexual unmarried couples but most cases involve same-sex couples, who cannot legally marry in Michigan.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, sponsored a bill in January to explicitly allow unmarried couples to become joint parents.

“If the only adoptive parent becomes incapacitated or passes away, the child goes back into foster care instead of with the only other parent they’ve known,” Irwin said. “It undermines the other parent’s right to make medical and financial decisions.”

If passed, Irwin’s legislation could bring clarity to a convoluted legal concept.

“Nothing in Michigan’s adoption law says unmarried joint adoption is illegal. There is no case law,” said Jay Kaplan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Michigan chapter.

Kaplan said the confusion began 12 years ago when former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan found out Washtenaw County judges were granting joint adoptive rights to unmarried same-sex couples.

Corrigan ordered them to stop, although it was not part of any case ruling.

Corrigan is now director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services. The agency’s communications director, Dave Akerly, declined to discuss the legality of second parent adoption but did say there were only two “available” processes to adopt a child – jointly if married and adopting single, regardless of sexual orientation.

Akerly also said the department is “open to the possibility of change” but holds no official opinion on second parent adoption.

A 2004 opinion by former Attorney General Mike Cox also opposed second parent adoption. Cox added that same-sex couples who had legally married in other states could not jointly adopt in Michigan.

The practice is not explicitly against the law, despite the opinions of both Corrigan and Cox.

“It’s interpretation, and they’re trying to manufacture a prohibition based on an interpretation,” Kaplan said.

Despite this pressure, both Irwin and Kaplan said some judges in Michigan grant second parent adoptions. Irwin said he did not know the judges’ names. Kaplan declined to identify any judges, for fear of retaliation against them.

Emily Dievendorf, managing director of Equality Michigan, also said a few judges in the state will grant unmarried couples joint adoptive rights.

She also declined to publicly identify them.

“It’s risky,” said Dievendorf, whose organization advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. “They’re few and far between, but there are a couple judges. We’re very careful about dropping names, because that was the reason Maura Corrigan brought down the hammer in the first place.”

Irwin said this scenario is exactly why his legislation is necessary.

“My bill would directly put into law that judges could grant adoption to any two individuals in a case where it’s in the best interest of the child,” he said. “Married or not, same gender or not.”

Irwin said he expects to face a familiar uphill battle with his bill. In 2011, he and Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, proposed similar legislation.

Their bill never made it to a vote.

His most recent bill is awaiting action in the Committee on Families, Children and Seniors.

Dievendorf of Equality Michigan says that community support is beginning to pressure legislators to act.

Recently, Dievendorf, Irwin and Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, hosted a community forum on second parent adoption. The reception – especially among those in the faith community –  was favorable, she said.

“When you have a room full of faith-based leaders, they go back to a room of parishioners and that builds influence,” she said. “It’s a snowball effect and Michigan leaders need to be ready for that.”

Dievendorf also said she sees deep community support for the plaintiffs in the highly publicized Deboer v. Snyder case, which challenges the state’s position on same-sex marriage and second parent adoption. The federal case involves lesbian couple Jayne Rowse and April Deboer of Hazel Park, who wish to jointly adopt each other’s three children.

That case is scheduled for trial on Feb. 25.

Whether it emerges via the Deboer case, constituent demands on lawmakers or Irwin’s legislation, Dievendorf said that she expects second parent adoption to prevail sooner rather than later.

“Every legislative session and community meeting, there is always growing community support,” she said. “People see the absurdity in this, and they’re ready to see something happen.”

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