By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Same-sex couples in Michigan can serve as foster parents, but if they wish to adopt a child together, current state laws say they can’t.
This is because, by law, Michigan couples need to be married in order to adopt a child. And same-sex marriage in Michigan is still prohibited after a U.S. Appeals Court upheld the state’s ban, although 300 couples who were married during a brief legal window are now recognized by the state.
Kathleen Nelson, executive director of the Michigan adoption agency Hands Across the Water, said a person’s LGBT status does not make a difference when it comes to one’s adequacy as a parent.
“It’s an individual person thing,” Nelson said. “There are wonderful, perfect, absolute parents that are LGBT people, and there are perfectly wonderful heterosexual parents. It has nothing to do with their sexual orientation.”
Michigan is home to the sixth largest adoption network in the country, but the number of foster children aging out of the system grows every year — it was 925 in 2013. According to Bob Wheaton of the Department of Human Services, there are over 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system.
“The fact that there are any barriers to put a child in a suitable home is not a good practice,” said Mark Giesler, a professor in the Department of Social Work at Saginaw Valley State University and parent of an adopted child. “Why wouldn’t you want as many possible possibilities for children?”
While the system allows one member of the couple to adopt individually, the other is cut off from significant rights when it comes to leaving benefits for the child, or in the case of the couple splitting up. This also leaves the complicated decision of which parent gets to be on the child’s birth certificate, and which is left out.
“Most couples prefer to adopt their children together, since they are couples,” Nelson said.
While a few couples legally married in Michigan are able to adopt together, it is still a barrier for the majority of the community.
“If something were to happen to my partner, I would not legally be the parent of one of my children,” said Giesler, who could not marry his partner at the time they adopted their two children. The couple made an agreement, each legally adopting one of their sons.
“Legally I don’t have any rights, which is crazy,” he said. “I’ve been raising these kids for over seven years.”
The situation is particularly difficult for unmarried LGBT couples who have cared for foster children but cannot adopt them as a couple.
“It’s very confusing for the kids,” Giesler said. “It’s not easy for them to understand, you’re not really my dad, but you also are my dad.”
Nelson said fostering often leads to adoption, and her agency even recommends fostering a child before adopting in order to get to know each other, and make sure the home is a good fit.
“You know the good, bad and the ugly about that child, so you’re ready to parent that child forever,” Nelson said.
The law requiring married status could soon become moot, however. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal of the gay marriage ban in four states, Michigan included. If the ban was lifted, these couples would be able to marry and, through that, adopt jointly in Michigan.
“It’s one more piece of the puzzle to establish stability and security for children. If you legitimize a couple’s relationship, the child is going to see that in a positive way,” Giesler said.
Married same-sex couples would still need to pick the right agency. While Michigan has nondiscrimination laws in place that cover adoption and foster care, these do not protect people of LGBT status.
“Not every agency is very friendly and open. There are still a lot of barriers in terms of attitudes,” said Giesler.
Nelson’s agency has strict nondiscrimination policies, but she says that other agencies can go as far as refusing to work with LGBT people completely.
“I see no reason why at all,” she said. “They make wonderful families. There’s no difference I can see.”
By BROOKE KANSIER