Tuesday, October 13, 2009

South Carolina appeals court leaves child with lesbian pre-adoptive mother

Earlier this month the South Carolina Court of Appeals left a two year child in the home of a Erin S., 34 year old lesbian who had been approved as the child's pre-adoptive foster parent. The case, Michael P. v. Greenville County Dept of Social Services, came to court when the child's former foster parents, who had declined to adopt him, decided that placing the child with a lesbian was such a bad idea that they had to change their mind and petition themselves to adopt the child or at least stop the placement.

Basically, the child had cocaine in his system at birth, was placed in the state's emergency custody, and then was placed in foster care with Michael and Lisa P. A year later, the social services agency asked the P's if they wanted to adopt the child and they said no. They allege that the agency told them the child would be adopted by a young mother and father in their 20's and that they might be able to remain in the child's life. Four months later, the P.'s went to court and argued that they would not have agreed to the removal of the child from their home had they known the child would be placed with a lesbian. They petitioned to adopt the child themselves or obtain custody or substantial visitation. They even attempted to enlist the biological parents in support of their petition. At this point Erin S. intervened in the case.

The trial court ruled that the couple lacked standing to petition to adopt the child because he had been placed by the county in a pre-adoptive home with Erin S. They also had no standing as former foster parents. They could have challenged the removal of the child from their home, but once they did not do that they could not object later and try to adopt the child themselves.

The couple appealed and the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court. The couple argued that the court should have considered that the best interests of the child were not served by placement with a lesbian, but the court ruled that the couple lacked standing to raise any issue about the child's placement.

There is much that interests me about this case. First, the obvious. It's from the south -- the region of the country most hostile to gay and lesbian parents. But it also reminds me of a court ruling in the 1970's from a South Carolina court requiring actual proof of harm to a child before a heterosexual father could get custody of a child living with his ex-wife who had come out as a lesbian. It's inaccurate to paint the south with one broad brush.

Next, the social services agency made the placement with a lesbian as a pre-adoptive parent. It's no accident that state social workers have generally been reliable advocates of allowing gay men and lesbians to be foster and adoptive parents. They focus on the individual needs of children and the individualized determination of who makes suitable parents. The ideology and rhetoric that sometimes prevail in politics (e.g., the continuation of Florida's adoption ban and the passage of the initative in Arkansas instituting a ban there) really lose steam when considering the lives of real people.

Finally, some people behave very badly. The P's knew nothing about Erin S's ability to raise this child other than her sexual orientation, and that was enough for them to try to block her. Good for the South Carolina court in not letting them get away with it.

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