Proposal would let unwed partners adopt

Published December 23, 2008 11:23 pm

Gay or straight » Dem hopes to nudge her fellow legislators.
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Liam Thompson, who turns 2 next month, calls Debbie Thompson "Mama." But to the state of Utah, she cannot be more than the boy's legal guardian.

Thompson's wife, Reanna Thompson -- the couple were married in Montreal in 2004 and Reanna took Debbie's last name -- gave birth to Liam, with the help of a sperm donor, on Jan. 4, 2007.

Utah law forbids anyone in a cohabiting relationship -- gay or straight -- from adopting a child or serving as a foster parent. Single adults of any sexual orientation can adopt, but preference goes to married couples.

But in 2009, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, hopes to reverse the 2000 law that forbids all unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents. (Same-sex marriages, like the Thompsons', are not recognized by Utah, which has a constitutional ban on such unions.)

"These folks meet every single other criteria that's listed for adoption and fostering. The only thing that's different is the relationship between the adults," Chavez-Houck said. "There's a very big body of research that shows that sexual orientation [of parents] does not affect the well-being of a child."

She acknowledged it will be "difficult" to get Utah's conservative Legislature to sign off on her "Forever Homes for Every Child" bill, which she submitted to the 2008 session but it never got out of the House Rules Committee.

"My gut feeling says we're not even going to see that bill in the Senate," said Senate President-elect Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "That sounds like they're trying to set up a family relationship that under [Utah's same-sex marriage ban] isn't allowed. … If we're going to change the definition of a family, we should do it constitutionally -- not through end runs."

But, Waddoups added, he is open to hearing the debate.

Chavez-Houck's proposal still would grant married couples preference for adoption, but it would allow unmarried couples to be considered when the biological parent consents or if the child is in state custody.

The change could help the Utah Division of Child and Family Services place more children in temporary and permanent homes. The state has 2,600 children in foster care, and 1,300 licensed foster-care homes. DCFS currently is seeking permanent homes for 454 foster children.

"To limit the number of homes we have available to us for possible adoption doesn't really make sense in light of the number of children who we have in foster care awaiting adoption," said DCFS Director Duane Betournay. A number of kids "age out," turning 18 before ever getting a permanent home.

"Our preference would be to look at it [cohabiting parents] on a case-by-case basis and make those decisions based on what is in the best interest of the child."

Equality Utah, an advocacy group working on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns, is pushing Chavez-Houck's bill, but has not included it in the Common Ground Initiative, a collection of proposed legislation that would offer legal protections, short of marriage, to same-sex couples. That initiative is aimed at finding "common ground" on gay rights with the LDS Church.

But the church's statements about the "traditional family" have made it clear Utah's predominant faith believes children should be reared by a mother and a father, who are married, noted Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public-policy manager. LDS Family Services provides adoptions services in Utah, but only to Mormon couples who have been married at least two years.

Debbie Thompson disagrees with the notion that same-sex couples cannot be great parents. Liam loves both his "Mama" and his "Mommy." The West Jordan family would like to adopt a second child -- if Utah law changes.

"We have room in our lives and our home for other children. We would love to be able to take a child who needs a chance, and the state won't let us," Debbie Thompson said. Reanna is able to be a stay-at-home mom with Debbie's income as director of manufacturing services for Nellson Nutraceutical in Salt Lake City. But first, Debbie wants to be able to adopt Liam so she can stop worrying a substitute teacher won't let her take the boy home from school or an airline won't let her hop on a flight with him in tow.

"It is one of the most powerless and terrifying circumstances for me," she said. "Unlike most parents in Utah, I walk around with a copy of my legal-guardianship papers."

rwinters@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">rwinters@sltrib.com

About the bill

As drafted, the Forever Homes for Every Child bill would:

Uphold the state's preference for married couples in selecting adoptive or foster parents.

Allow unmarried, cohabiting couples to adopt or serve as foster parents if the child's biological parents consent or if the child is in state custody.

Continue to allow a single adult to adopt when married couples are not available.

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