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John Pennycuff and his partner, Robert Castillo, who have been together for 18 years, have thought about adopting.

Recent vote puts spotlight on gay adoption

by Jessica Dill
Nov 13, 2008

Gwen Mathewson, a former Chicagoan, and her spouse adopted twin sons eight years ago. Now living in Seattle, Mathewson says their family feels incredibly normal.

What’s different about her family is that her kids have two moms, Mathewson and her wife Susie Coskey.

“It feels natural to us, and it feels natural to our kids because they don’t know anything else,” Mathewson said. “They were never raised thinking there was something strange about having two mothers. It has just always been their world and we love them both as much as any kids and they love us back.”

The right of couples like Mathewson and Coskey to adopt has come under fire, the most recent example when Arkansas voted this month to ban unmarried couples from adopting, joining a short list of states with some kind of adoption restrictions on gay or unmarried couples.

There are about 129,000 children awaiting adoption across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The issue is we have children who need a home and we have potential parents who could give these children great homes with love and protection,” said Rick Garcia, director of public policy at Equality Illinois, a gay rights advocacy group. “But there are those people that think it’s better to keep a kid in a foster care system rather than a permanent home with a same-sex couple.”

Even though Illinois allows gays and lesbians to adopt, not everyone here agrees with that policy.

David E. Smith of the Illinois Family Institute, which educates and lobbies lawmakers to advance public policy consistent with the teachings of the Bible, says children do best in a family with a mother and father.

“To deny them that or to pretend that two women or two men could somehow fulfill the role that a mother or father fulfills is ignoring the important influences needed in the child’s life,” said Smith, executive director of the institute.

Bruce Boyer, a professor at Chicago’s Loyola University School of Law and expert on child abuse and neglect, says there isn’t always a clear answer to this debate.

“Whether or not kids are damaged by being raised by the same sex is a very difficult thing to measure because it’s not like counting beans,” said Boyer, who is on the board of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “It’s very difficult to find cause and effect circumstances to pass that judgment.”

While there is little current research on the long-term outcomes for children raised by gays, studies dating back 25 years conclude that children raised by gay and lesbian parents fare as well as those by heterosexual parents, according to a report released in September by the Donaldson Institute.

A study published in 2002 in the journal “Pediatrics” looking at children with same-sex parents over the past 20 years, said “A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual.”

“Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes," the study said.

The Illinois Family Institute’s Smith said that although he believes two lesbians or two gay men can love and care for a child, a mother and father instill different values to a child.

“It’s also common sense,” Smith said. “My wife and I have four kids and there are different parenting traits we have in raising our children. There are empirical differences in men and women, differences in the way our brains work, that you can’t substitute.”

Garcia, on the other hand, doesn’t agree with the idea of needing a mother and father.

“There is something not only perverted about this attitude but it is vicious and violent,” Garcia said. “They are putting their own bigotry against gay and lesbian people ahead of the welfare of a child that needs a home -- and that is really sick.”

Erich Heintzen, a psychotherapist at Live Oak, Inc., in Chicago, works with youth and families.

“From a developmental approach that looks at the hierarchy of needs, children need a sense of security, trust, and basic physical needs being met,” Heintzen said. “Same-sex parents can and do provide this environment.”

Dr. Lisa Rouff, a psychologist who provides infertility and adoption counseling services, says the main thing a child needs is a loving home.

“Generally children can adapt to a variety of different situations and still come out OK, as long as they have the building blocks they need,” Rouff said.

Mathewson said she and Coskey provide the loving home that children need. She said gays took a hit in this year’s elections with the vote in Arkansas and the ban on gay marriage in California, but expressed hope for the future for her kids.

“They will at some point be exposed to discrimination about same-sex parents,” the New Trier high grad said, “but families come in lots of different forms and hopefully all families will be supported more broadly then they are now.”

Sidebar: Same-sex adoption law in Illinois

Over the past 18 years of being together, Chicagoans Robert Castillo and John Pennycuff have had their marriage licenses nullified and have been kicked out of a bar for dancing together. But one thing they won’t have to worry about in Illinois is being stopped from adopting a child.

“Even though there may be extremes to both sides of this issue in Illinois, at least there are fair-minded people here, which I think works to our favor,” Castillo said.

According to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, all families that are qualified to care for the children are treated equally in Illinois.

“DCFS law does not inhibit or prohibit adoption by non-heterosexual individuals or couples,” said Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for the department. “This state gives full faith and credit to adoptions completed legally in other states.”

Rosemary Mulryan, attorney of Mulryan and York who represents adoptive parents, says unmarried persons living together have been able to adopt children in Illinois for the past 13 years, after the decision of a 1995 case on the issue.

Director of the Adoption Information Center in Illinois, DeAudrey Davis, says that the state requires a license to adopt. Same-sex couples go through the same testing as every other couple in order to get the license. The background check includes health records, criminal background, family lifestyle, general interviews and references.

“Illinois is one of the best places in the country for same-sex couples to be able to adopt,” said Rick Garcia, director of public policy at Equality Illinois. “We’ve had very good experiences with the courts in granting same-sex couples adoption rights.”

Castillo and Pennycuff, who became legally married again this year, say they’ve thought about adopting.

“I think we would be good fathers because the child would definitely know they were loved,” Castillo said. “I think a loving home is what a child should be in, no matter who is raising them.”

Sidebar: How different states treat gay adoption

Florida is the only state that explicitly prohibits adoptions by gays and lesbians, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report. Mississippi does not allow gay couples to adopt, but its law does not mention gay singles, and Utah does not mention gays or lesbians in its law, but bars adoption by unmarried couples that live together. Since the report was issued, Arkansas also barred adoption by unmarried couples living together.

Boyer, the child neglect and abuse expert, said “I think the most important thing to look at is the number of kids waiting to go into permanent homes and number of people out there who are being told you can’t provide those homes.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children waiting to be adopted over the past 10 years has continuously gone down in states like Illinois, which does not prohibit same-sex couples from any type of adoption, but has not declined in states like Florida.

But do state laws allowing gays to adopt attribute to those declining numbers?

“There has been a tremendous drop in Illinois of children waiting in foster care over the past 10 years, which you can’t assume for all states,” said Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. “But the state-to-state variation is due to a lot of factors.”

Marlowe said the primary reason for the drop in numbers in Illinois is initiatives that began in the late ‘90s to find permanent homes. Examples include guardian subsidies and working with families who were already foster parents to become adoptive parents. Another reason is the change in the legal definition of neglect, he said. For example, in the past, neglect included situations where a grandmother was taking care of the child instead of the parent. Now the family members can become legal guardians.

Marlowe said the Department of Children and Family Services does not track the number of same-sex couple adoptions, so he couldn’t say whether laws allowing gay adoption are a main contributor to the falling number of children waiting in foster homes.

Joan Jaeger of the Cradle adoption agency in Evanston, which has the biological parents pick the adoption parents, said about 10 percent of their placement goes to same-sex couples. Kristen Ahlberg of Children’s Home and Aid Society, which places foster children in homes, said that although they don’t keep statistics of same-sex couple placement, they have definitely seen an increase in the last 10 years. Both agencies said same-sex couple placements have been successful for the children.