ACLU Fights Florida's Gay Adoption Ban

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 4, 2001 12:00 am

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MIAMI — Florida’s 1977 law prohibiting adoption by any lesbian or gay man is the toughest anti-homosexual adoption measure in the country, the Associated Press reported.

According to the AP, in a few months, perhaps by September, that ban will face its toughest challenge: a federal court trial in Key West that could lead all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and a Florida child-welfare group will argue that the law unconstitutionally discriminates against gays, and limits opportunities for the 3,000 Florida foster children awaiting adoption.

Conservatives say the law is the state’s way of protecting traditional families.

How the case is ultimately decided could send a signal about the future legality of gay adoption, now governed by a patchwork of laws and policies around the country.

Doug Houghton, one of the plaintiffs, is eager to testify.

Houghton has been raising a child for the past six years and has been his legal guardian since 1996. He wants very much to adopt the boy legally.

“As Oscar grows up, I want him to know I’m his daddy,” Houghton said in an interview at his Miami home. “Legal guardianship isn’t a solid foundation for a real relationship. I have an intangible fear that someone’s going to take him away from me.”

In many states, adoptions by gays have become common; in others, they remain rare but are not barred by statute. Mississippi and Utah enacted laws last year prohibiting adoption by same-sex couples, but only Florida has an explicit ban extending to all gays and lesbians.

“This statute was enacted out of animosity toward lesbians and gays, not out of any basis in child welfare,” said Leslie Cooper, one of the ACLU attorneys handling the suit.

“It’s a fundamental principle that adoption decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.” she said.

Florida law does allow gays and lesbians to be foster parents.

Two of Houghton’s co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Wayne Smith and Dan Skahen of Key West — have jointly cared for seven foster children for varying periods over the past 16 months with the support of Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

Skahen, 35, a real estate broker, said he and Smith have watched over children ranging from infants to a 15-year-old, most of them traumatized by emotional abuse at their previous homes.

“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” said Skahen. “You need to be a quasi-psychologist. But we’ve become very good at it. It’s rewarding to see these children progress, to know you’re making a difference.” Smith, 45, runs a commercial law firm and got involved in the ACLU lawsuit partly out of anger when he realized that his married sister, who lives in Nevada, could not stipulate in legal papers that Smith should adopt her two children if she and her husband died.

He also believes Florida’s law is a disservice to foster children who need loving, permanent homes.

“There are kids that are not being taken care of, who have a right to have every alternative made available to them,” Smith said.

While the state will defend the law in court, Florida officials have displayed little enthusiasm for it. The Department of Children and Families, for example, takes no public position on the measure.

Leaders of conservative groups in Florida believe the law has strong public support.

“People in Florida are in favor of traditional families,” said Terry Kemple, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. “I’m glad we have the law, and I hope other states follow Florida’s example.”

Nationally, even without other bans as tough as Florida’s, gay adoption is one of the most contentious and complex topics on the social agenda.

The Arkansas Legislature rejected an adoption ban this year, while last year New Hampshire lawmakers repealed the only other ban that was as broad as Florida’s.

Lisa Bennett, who tracks gay-related family issues for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, said 22 states allow gay adoptions more or less routinely. Some local adoption agencies frown on gay adoption even though many national organizations, such as the Child Welfare League and the North American Council on Adoptable Children, say sexual orientation should not be an inherent barrier to adoption.

There is broad agreement that gay adoptions nationwide are increasing, but no consensus on a number. Bennett said there could be anywhere from 800,000 to several million gays and lesbians with adopted children. Some gays and lesbians choose not to declare their sexual orientation during adoption proceedings; some agencies do not track such data.

Any time the issue is raised, the two sides of the adoption debate argue whether children raised by homosexual parents are better or worse off, psychologically and socially, than other children. For Doug Houghton, there is no doubt in Oscar’s case. The boy’s biological father, just evicted from his home, dropped Oscar off at the clinic where Houghton worked six years ago and said he was unable to provide adequate care.

Oscar was underweight and below par with basic learning skills, but is now doing well in sports and third-grade class, while coping with a regime of daily medication.

Oscar is black. Houghton, who is white, moved from Hollywood, Fla., to Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood so Oscar could attend a good, multiracial elementary school.

Houghton takes pride in being a devoted father; he and Oscar take turns reading to each other each night.

“It allows me to experience a part of life that I never thought I’d be able to,” he said. “To teach Oscar about emotions, about life, to leave a legacy, and to do it well — it makes me very proud to see what a good kid he is.”

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