Gillibrand Targets Adoption, Foster Care Barriers

Senator seeks end to bias against gay, trans, single parents

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced legislation, the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, aimed at ending discrimination against prospective adoptive and foster parents based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status.

In a press statement about the bill, which she introduced on November 1, Gillibrand, a Democrat up for reelection in 2012, pointed out that more than 400,000 children are in the foster care system nationwide, and that 107,000 children, including 6,600 in New York, await adoption.

According to the senator, in 2010, nearly 28,000 youths “aged out” of the foster care system without permanent placement — a group, her statement said, that is “at high risk for poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.” The federal government currently spends more than $8 billion on the nation’s child welfare system.

“There is a child welfare crisis in our country,” said Jennifer Chrisler, the executive director of the Family Equality Council. “More than one-third of the children in foster care could be placed with a family right now, but state laws are eliminating loving and qualified parents simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. Our country cannot continue to deny these children forever families because of the flawed patchwork of state laws.”

PFLAG’s executive director, Jody Huckaby, said, “As a family organization that has spent the past 40 years supporting and advocating for parents, families, and children all over the country, we know from our vast experience that it is in the best interest of every child — and, in fact, the right of every child — to have the loving care and support of a family.”

Gillibrand noted that New York State has no barriers to LGBT parents providing foster care or adopting children, which she said has increased the foster parent pool here by 128,000 potential parents.

“New York is a leader on ensuring that any family can adopt children and sets a great example for the rest of the country,” she said.

The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School reports that 65,000 adopted children in the US live with a gay or lesbian parent or couple, with two million LGBT Americans saying they have considered becoming foster or adoptive parents. In 2008, Williams found that more than 21,000 children are being raised by same-sex couples in New York.

Only Florida has an outright ban on gay people adopting children, but according to the Family Equality Council, six states — Utah, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky, and North Carolina — have explicit prohibitions on a same-sex parent adopting their partner’s children. And two — Utah and Nebraska — prohibit gay and lesbian couples from becoming foster parents.

That list is likely the tip of the iceberg, Gillibrand’s press release argued: “More than two dozen states remain silent on how prospective LGBT foster and adoptive parents should be treated. Their lack of non-discrimination policies for same-sex couples leave children vulnerable to agencies and case workers’ biases, resulting in children being denied the benefit of placement with qualified, loving LGBT parents.”

According to Emily Hecht-McGowan, the Family Equality Council’s public policy director, Gillibrand’s measure aims to “incentivize” states to eliminate discriminatory barriers for foster and adoptive parents. States would be required to show that all of their own programs funded with federal dollars as well as any private agencies to which US funding is passed along comply with the nondiscrimination provisions.

Though some states have public policies at odds with the Gillibrand bill, none is unaccustomed to complying with requirements attached to federal dollars that go to adoption and foster care programs at the state level. These regulations, Hecht-McGowan explained, are not enforced on an all-or-nothing basis, with states risking the loss of all their adoption and foster care funding. Instead, they are required to show compliance by themselves and their grantees and are penalized only when they “routinely flout the rules.” Even then, the sanction would not likely be a complete zeroing out of federal support.

Hecht-McGowan pointed out that the nondiscrimination provisions of Gillibrand’s bill are already the policies recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services. HHS, however, currently has no statutory authority to impose these policies on state agency funding recipients.

Gillibrand’s bill has not yet been endorsed by President Barack Obama, but in his National Adoption Month proclamation issued the same day as she introduced the measure in the Senate, the president wrote, “Adoptive families come in all forms. With so many children waiting for loving homes, it is important to ensure that all qualified caregivers are given the opportunity to serve as adoptive parents, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or marital status.” That language echoes similar sentiments from earlier White House proclamations.

Gillibrand’s bill currently has five co-sponsors in the Senate — Democrats Al Franken of Minnesota, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Patty Murray of Washington as well as Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.

California Democratic Representative Pete Stark had previously introduced the companion to Gillibrand’s bill in the House, where he has 80 co-sponsors. In a chamber controlled by Republicans, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the only GOP representative among them.