It’s never been easy for gay couples to adopt. Last June marriage equality upended a maze of state laws restricting LGBT adopters. Yet challenges remain.
Weeks before the Supreme Court’s ruling, a crowd shuffled around a conference room at the LGBT center in lower Manhattan, waiting to hear Kirsten Gillibrand, a progressive New York senator, announce a bill to withhold federal funding from adoption agencies that discriminate against prospective LGBT parents.
Gillibrand had introduced the Every Child Deserves a Family Act to the house three times before last spring, and experts agree it’s mainly a message bill.
“It doesn’t really have legs,” said Ellen Kahn, director of children, youth and families at Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT rights nonprofit in the country. “It’s not going anywhere in the near future.”
Advocates like her have chipped away at state bans for years, but a patchwork of state laws complicated adoption by gay couples. For example, at least seven states still deny joint adoptions by “unmarried cohabitating couples.”
“That was a less explicit anti-gay way of saying ‘we don’t really want to place our kids with gay couples,’” she said.
Now these laws are effectively toothless. Now any couple in Utah, Nebraska, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Wisconsin or Ohio can simply get married and adopt. But Kahn said before last June couples had to find an agency that wouldn’t make a stink about one only parent adopting.
Same-sex couples are four times more likely to adopt and six times more likely to foster, according to a 2013 study put out by the Williams Institute, a research think tank at UCLA. The report also found that gay couples also take in more teenagers, groups of siblings and kids from other races.
“And the question I always ask—which is not clear yet from research—is whether we are truly more willing because of who we are or if there is this sense that you better just take the kids you can get,” Kahn said.
In most states the process to foster a child comes with less red tape than adoption, which involves social workers signing off on home studies, interviews to evaluate mental and emotional health, and oftentimes mandated parenting classes. Parents who foster and eventually adopt wards of the state are mostly motivated by altruism or money, according a 2014 analysis from the Williams Institute. But many gay couples also believe public adoption through the welfare system increases their chances of starting a family because the number of kids in foster care far exceeds prospective heterosexual adopters, the report noted.
But advocates said that LGBT couples, in both foster care and private adoption processes, often still face discrimination from individual social workers. Some two million LGBT people want to adopt, and yet more than four hundred thousand kids linger in foster care, according to a 2007 study by the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group.
Kahn said social workers find ways to discriminate even if they cannot outright deny same sex couples.
“You can put the home studies of same sex couples on the bottom of a pile with no intention of placing a child unless maybe, perhaps there is a particular child that nobody else [is] willing to take,” she said. “It’s almost like second-class family—second-class kids, as if that’s even fathomable.”
Institutional barriers still exist in some states. Last spring conservative legislators in 17 states—anticipating marriage equality—introduced 34 religious freedom laws. Michigan, Virginia, Arkansas, Kansas, North Dakota and Indiana now have what are called religious carve outs. In those states, private adoption agencies can legally claim it is against religious beliefs to place a child with same-sex couples.
Mississippi is one of two states that still outright ban adoption by all gay people. Nebraska, the other state, no longer enforces its law. A lawsuit, Campaign for Southern Equality Versus Mississippi Department of Health, seeks to overturn the ban.
Photos: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand posed with kids and their adoptive parents at the LGBT Center in lower Manhattan. Photo by Emrys Eller, 2015. (Above) Days before finalizing adoption papers, Philip Chan (left) and Chad Hollis attend a wedding with their daughter Madelyn. Photo by Heather Neu, 2015.