Lesbian Challenges Missouri Policy Barring Gay People from Foster Parenting

Affiliate: ACLU of Kansas
May 2, 2005 12:00 am

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KANSAS CITY, MO — A lesbian who has spent her life helping children is challenging a Missouri policy barring lesbian and gay people from serving as foster parents. Lisa Johnston, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought a challenge to the law in state court after an administrative judge, who found her to be otherwise “exceptionally” qualified to foster parent, denied her application solely because she is a lesbian.

“The state of Missouri has nearly 2,000 foster children in need of permanent homes,” said Lisa Johnston. “It’s unfair to deprive these children of the future they deserve simply to condemn lesbian and gay people. By coming forward with my story, I hope I can educate Missourians on why this policy harms the many children in need of good homes.”

Johnson, 40, is a graduate of the University of Kansas with a degree in Human Development and Family with a special emphasis on child development. In her current job with Head Start, she consults with childcare homes on developmentally appropriate curricula. Before taking this position, she worked for The Children’s Place as a lead teacher, providing an educational environment and care to infants in their day treatment program for neglected or abused children. She also previously worked for Head Start, helping to prepare underprivileged children to enter school.

In 2003, Johnston applied to the Department of Social Services (DSS) to become a foster parent to a child that she and her partner, Dawn Roginski, hoped to raise together. Like Johnston, Roginski, also 40, has devoted her life to helping children. She holds a master’s degree in counseling from St. Mary’s University and a master’s degree in divinity from Luther Seminary. She is currently a chaplain at a psychiatric treatment center for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders.

After Johnston applied to become a foster parent, the couple underwent an extensive home study and then began attending a training program for prospective foster parents. After completing seven of the nine training sessions, DSS notified Johnston that it would no longer consider her for placement solely because she is a lesbian. As required under state law, Johnston appealed the decision through the DSS administrative appeals process. Although the administrative judge found Johnston to be “exceptionally” qualified to foster parent, he denied her application in March 2005 solely because of her sexual orientation. The decision was based in part on Missouri law that banned sexual intimacy between same-sex couples that was rendered unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas.

On April 8, 2005, the ACLU filed a petition in the Jackson County Circuit Court on Johnston’s behalf asking the court to review the order from DSS. The ACLU charges that DSS’s decision banning Johnston from foster parenting is illegal.

“DSS is wrong about gay people and their ability to parent, and this is preventing Missouri’s foster children from finding permanent homes,” said Lisa Brunner, attorney for Johnston and volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. “This decision is not only unlawful, it goes against the recommendations of every major child welfare organization in the country.”

According to the most recent statistics, the DSS is struggling to find homes for more than 1,900 foster children. Banning gay people from serving as foster parents only serves to reduce the pool of qualified foster parents like Johnston who are willing to provide homes to these children.

The lack of potential foster parents means that some of the children in need of homes will remain in foster care for years, some will be separated from their siblings, and some will “age out” of the system without ever finding a permanent home.

Under Missouri law, every potential foster parent is already required to undergo strict screening before being qualified to foster parent. Categorical bans like the one enacted by DSS don’t protect children but merely unnecessarily disqualify people who could be good parents.

That’s why every mainstream child advocacy and mental health organization is opposed to foster care policies that categorically ban lesbians and gay men. These groups include the Child Welfare League of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

“Decades of social science research has proven over and over again that lesbians and gay men are just as capable of being good parents as straight people, and their children are just as well adjusted,” said Cathy Hiersteiner, Ph.D., a child welfare specialist and founding member of Missouri Alternative Families Alliance. “This policy is bad for many reasons, but especially because it unnecessarily hurts the children who need our help the most.”

Additional information about the case, including biographical information about Johnston and Roginski, is available at www.aclu.org/caseprofiles.

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