Consider the kid
Why the bill to keep gays from adopting would hurt Kentucky’s image, workforce and economy
It is just about two hours into the annual Brown School talent show. Outside, unseasonably warm weather has slashed open the Louisville winter to the smells and gusts of springtime. And though it may be premature, the kids here — there are hundreds — bounce around with the glee that a sudden lifting of oppressive weather can bring.
Sitting in wooden bleacher seats inside the auditorium of Brown’s downtown campus, Randy Johnson and Paul Campion are holding cameras. Their equipment is state-of-the-art in a modern-dad kind of way: Johnson’s video camera, which operates on flash memory, fits snugly into his palm; Campion has the still-shooter, a compact device whose viewfinder has impressive surface area.
The men, who met in 1991 and have been together without interruption since, are stoic and nonchalant about what’s happening onstage. Perhaps it’s because the act they came for is 34th on the bill and they’ve already endured a substantial amount of kid-kinda-plays-drums and dance-troupe-clambers-through-vaguely-sexual-R&B-number, or maybe they’ve seen their 14-year-old son Tyler sing so many times they’re immune to standard parental nerves; regardless, both men operate their recording equipment with professional focus.
Meanwhile, Tyler — a skinny, angled kid with the gangly build of male puberty, electric eyes and the long, thin fingers of a piano player — floats around the stage, belting out the Jonas Brothers’ “Play My Music” and waving his arms in an attempt to get the crowd behind him (they oblige). The song is about the redemptive qualities of music, generally speaking, but it’s also a shout of independence, a call to strip unnecessary elements from your life. It’s got the quick catch tweens demand from their pop music, but it’s also technically suited to Tyler right now: The Jonas Brothers sing in a lower register than the stuff he’s sung before.
Johnson explains this whole puberty business is really messing with Tyler’s voice, as evidenced by a DVD of past performances stored in an entertainment center housing a 52-inch flat screen that dominates the Johnson-Campion family room. During a visit to the family’s home on a recent Saturday afternoon, the DVD made it to the player; it seems Tyler used to belt it out like Jackson Five-era Michael: all high-range and cute. The stuff he’s done before — Christmas songs for church pageantry or a well-attended celebration at an east Louisville shopping complex — was glassy and spot-on. When he sings “Play My Music” for the talent show audience, however, he strains on the high parts, giving his pristine voice a slight snarling quality. Although he exudes not an ounce of self-consciousness or darkness, Tyler sounds a little angsty these days.
It’s not clear where Tevin, his fraternal twin brother, is during all this, other than rolling with one of the cliques who own this auditorium tonight. He romps like any other eighth-grader, at a suitable distance from his parents. For all Tyler’s interest in music and drama, Tevin is decidedly less theatrical, a quiet kid and budding intellectual who follows politics and world affairs, and who appreciates a structured kind of existence. It was Tevin who, during a spat with the YMCA over allowing families with gay or lesbian heads to be members, which his fathers helped reverse a handful of years ago, pointed out that the oath his soccer team was required to recite before every game gave particular emphasis to the concept of equality.
Mackenzie, who holds up a single hand with five fingers outstretched to represent her age, dances between her fathers; every so often, she just closes her eyes and sways to her brother’s voice. A few rows over, 10-year-old DeSean sits with two friends. Like many kids his age, DeSean is obsessed with basketball and is an avowed Louisville Cardinals maniac, a characteristic divulged by the décor of his bedroom.
Johnson and Campion adopted the twins and Mackenzie when they were babies; in fact, both birth mothers chose the couple through a local agency. DeSean has been with the family for about two years — Campion is a counselor for Jefferson County Public Schools and met DeSean, who had been in foster care, at school. The two bonded, and after a brief fostering period, Campion adopted him.
But there is a dark side to all this that Johnson and Campion have been forced to consider after the recent emergence of “The Child Welfare Adoption Act” — known commonly as Senate Bill 68 — which passed through a state Senate committee last week. Had they not found the kids — all of whom are at least partially African-American, the twins with the darkest complexion — it’s likely all four would’ve spiraled through the foster care system and maybe even to different parts of the country; it should come as no surprise that black kids in Kentucky’s foster care system tend to have a harder time finding homes than their white counterparts.
Senate Bill 68 would make families like the Johnson-Campions a legal impossibility by prohibiting any adoption or foster care by unmarried, cohabiting people (it would not, however, apply retroactively). In practical terms, that’s as devastating to gay couples — who cannot legally marry in Kentucky — as it is to the grandmother who happens to share a house with her boyfriend and thus can’t adopt the grandchild she’s spent half her life raising. Not to mention any number of heterosexual couples who share a place but not each other’s Social Security benefits.
When state Sen. Gary Tapp, R-Shelbyville, introduced the bill earlier this year, most serious people laughed it off as a trite, transparent appeal to the ultra-conservative moral minority after tough national losses in the 2008 elections. But with the General Assembly thus far taking Tapp’s cue, some are beginning to think it might actually move: S.B. 68 appears poised to pass the Senate and could wind up in the House as early as this week. If the House passes it, Gov. Steve Beshear will have the option to veto or sign the bill. (His office wouldn’t commit to vetoing the bill, although spokesman Jay Blanton says Beshear opposes it.)
The Fairness Campaign has staged several protests in Frankfort, and the Facebook group “Stop S.B. 68 in Kentucky” boasts more than 7,300 members.
Piled atop the 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Kentucky — which rode in on a wave of national support (13 states passed such amendments that year; there are 29 with constitutions now banning gay marriage), whipped up in part by the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and its political architect, Karl Rove — the adoption bill places the state in company with others similarly assertive of their heterosexuality: Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi and Louisiana, for instance, use euphemistic language about unmarried cohabiting couples to prevent gays from adopting. Florida is the only state with a law that directly bans gay adoptions; it was ruled unconstitutional late last year.
While there certainly are human- and civil-rights issues attendant to prohibiting people in committed domestic partnerships from being adoptive parents or from deciding who might become a parent to their own child, there is also an economic argument against targeting gays with legislation: It will keep people away from your city or state. On the campaign trail in 2007, Beshear talked a lot about modernizing Kentucky’s economy, about the need to attract a new, young workforce and build up our knowledge economy, as the old-world manufacturing and shipping economies falter. In Louisville, Mayor Jerry Abramson has referred to this probably weekly for the last five years, his enthusiasm for the city and drawing in new people — and companies — being that upfront. There has even been a string of television and radio commercials touting Louisville as “Possibility City” and purporting to show how progressive, hip and youthful our city has become.
But what if the outside perception of Louisville is something much different: a place where gays and lesbians can’t marry or adopt children, a place comfortable with pushing a substantial set of its population to a second tier of citizenship that is imposed not practically so much as institutionally? How will that help grow our city?
If you decide you want to adopt a child in Kentucky, there is a rigorous application process you must endure before getting on the list.
First is the background check, in which the state examines your criminal and court histories to be sure of no child abuse or neglect in your past, among other dark things. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also runs a fingerprint scan on all foster care and adoption applicants. Then comes the pre-parenting training, a 30-hour course conducted mostly in three-hour weeknight classes. Then a worker visits your home to make sure it’s safe, i.e. there is a working smoke alarm, there are no exposed wires, so forth. The home study does not include a report of the applicant’s sexual practices, proclivities or orientation.
There are 7,027 children currently in foster care in the state, and about half as many places for them to go. Close to half the kids are served by state-run homes and services, and the other half by private agencies (most of them nonprofit) that receive funding from the state, according to background information provided by affiliated groups that requested anonymity, as this issue is perceived by most in the capital as a political wedge.
According to one group, foster care and adoption services are under-funded by as much as 30 percent annually; another says the money paid by the state to private foster care agencies for daily services has not increased in several years, and just last month was slashed by 7 percent, a consequence of the $456 million revenue shortfall in this fiscal year’s state budget.
It’s also important to remember that children wind up in the custody of the state because they’ve been removed, after exhaustive investigations, from situations of severe abuse or neglect — generally speaking, the children on Kentucky’s foster care rolls have been wronged by the adults around them.
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law released a study in late February that estimated S.B. 68 would cost the state an additional $5.3 million in foster care services during its first year alone. As well, of the 630 children who enter the foster care system during that year, the study concluded, 85 would either be left in state custody longer than they would have been or would not be adopted at all because of the ban.
Currently, according to the Williams study, a little more than 11 percent of the children placed in non-relative foster care are placed with unmarried, cohabiting couples. There are an estimated 61 foster children living with same-sex couples in Kentucky (that includes relatives, non-relatives and pre-adoptive homes). As of 2005, there were just over 9,700 same-sex couples living in Kentucky, according to a separate Williams report, issued last summer. That’s one foster child for every 159 same-sex couples in the state, an awfully small percentage to earn its own legislation.
“I think it’s a bad bill. I think it’s bad for Kentucky for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Sheppard Sanford, director of clinical services for REACH of Louisville, a therapeutic foster care agency. “It’s going to severely restrict the pool of parents we can pull from to provide foster care and adoptions. We already don’t have enough. We struggle to recruit foster parents. Consequently, what happens when you don’t have enough foster parents and adoptive parents is that kids wind up going to a higher level of care, a much more costly level of care, they go to residential facilities.”
Indeed, many of the state’s foster care, adoption services and various allied groups are either privately or publicly opposed to S.B. 68, and all for the same reasons: It would reduce the pool of foster or adoptive parents in a time when they’re desperately needed, and it would cost the already-strapped state considerably more money just to maintain basic operations. Even the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is on the record opposing S.B. 68.
“The Cabinet believes this legislation would be detrimental to our efforts to place children in adoptive, foster and relative placements because it would decrease the number of available placements,” spokeswoman Vicki Franklin wrote in an e-mail. “Federal law requires children to be placed in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their needs, which, for most children, means a home-like environment in the community. Failure to comply with federal law places the Cabinet at risk of federal financial penalties.”
As well, a number of national organizations oppose this type of legislation, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Academy of Pediatrics. And in July 2004, the American Psychological Organization adopted an official position statement that reads, in part: “… There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: Lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”
So why are Sen. Tapp and conservative groups like the Family Foundation pushing so hard for a bill that seems to needlessly complicate an already delicate situation?
During a rally in support of his bill March 3 in the Capitol Rotunda, Sen. Tapp — who did not respond to a request for an interview — said this: “We must not forget that the children are the ones that matter. You know, over the last few weeks there’s been a lot of politicizing of this bill to make it all about homosexual issues. It’s not about homosexual issues. It’s about what we really should be focused on, as I said earlier, it’s the welfare of the children, who are already in a very, very vulnerable position.”
Any legal argument for prohibiting unmarried, cohabiting heterosexual people from adopting in Kentucky is tenuous at best. For a gay couple, as the law currently is written, a child cannot legally have two mothers or fathers. For instance, a woman cannot gain parental rights to a child her lesbian partner has given birth to because such an adoption would terminate the parental rights of the birth mother. A single gay man can adopt a child on his own, but his partner — no matter how long they’ve been together or whether they have a legal marriage in another state — has no legal right to adopt that child in Kentucky.
Lawyers have worked around this for some time, most recently creating a stepparent-like adoption for gays and lesbians that, in effect, supposed one partner to occupy the same legal territory as a stepparent in a hetero relationship. Some judges in Jefferson County Family Court approved it, following the rationale that the law had failed to keep pace with societal norms.
However, last September, the Kentucky Court of Appeals issued an opinion striking down these adoptions. A lesbian couple had used artificial insemination to get pregnant and the stepparent-like adoption to gain parental rights for the partner who did not carry the baby. After they broke up, the birth mother sued to terminate her former partner’s rights to the child. While the court decided to leave the parental relationships alone in this case, it also struck down stepparent-like adoption, and the legal community viewed it as a warning not to try this kind of adoption again: There is no legal basis for a gay couple to do stepparent-like adoption in Kentucky.
In addition, the court upheld a provision in the law that gives a one-year statute of limitations to any adoption; that is, once a year has passed since an adoption was finalized, no one can alter it, regardless of the circumstances.
Attorney Mitch Charney helped draft that provision some years ago, and worked on the aforementioned case, although he was not involved with the stepparent-like adoption part of the case.
“Our goal at the time was to give all adoptive parents a sense of safety and security after a designated period of time,” Charney says. “When we wrote this legislation, we weren’t thinking in terms of straight parents or gay or lesbian parents, we were thinking in terms of … individuals who adopt children, there should be a time period after which they know that forever, nobody can come back and mess with their adoption, whether or not there was an irregularity or a technical mistake or somebody forgot to dot an ‘i’ or cross a ‘t.’”
Charney says S.B. 68 would interfere with committed relationships, and that it may be unconstitutional, as it would infringe on a birth parent’s right to choose where to place her child. He says if the bill becomes law, he hopes the American Civil Liberties Union would challenge it with a lawsuit.
“Today, living together is an accepted way of life, whether you’re straight or gay,” he says.
Amy Knopf and Rachel Cowgill left Kentucky about 10 years ago. Both from Louisville, they’ve been together as long as they’ve been away from here, first living in Washington D.C. and now Seattle.
Knopf is a student at the University of Washington, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in nursing science, an advanced field in which experts are both highly sought and hard to come by, particularly in a place like Louisville, where our flagship university is pushing to extend its medical prowess. Cowgill is a web designer, one of those knowledge-economy jobs you hear a lot about from Mayor Abramson’s office.
Knopf and Cowgill have the money, personal and professional support systems, work schedules, intelligence and initiative to raise children, they say, and they’re pretty close to starting a family: They’ve decided one of them will carry the baby, and the other will adopt, something they can do in Seattle. They’re also considering moving back to Louisville, where they had a commitment ceremony in 2006, to be closer to family and friends.
But S.B. 68 may be a deal breaker for the couple.
“We’ve lived in places where we aren’t experiencing the sort of discrimination that we experienced in Kentucky,” Knopf says. “We’ve been away from that. And it’s one thing to go back to an environment where you know you’re going to experience some discrimination on an individual level, but then to experience a sort of state-sponsored discrimination is a whole different ballgame.”
The national mood is changing in favor of gay adoptions, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In 1999, only 38 percent of Americans supported it; as of 2006, that figure was up to 46 percent. (Importantly, over the same period, those opposed dropped from 57 to 48 percent.) The same study indicated that there are more Americans who support gay adoptions than gay marriage.
Not surprisingly, considerably more people between the ages of 18 and 29 support gay adoptions than any other demographic, according to research conducted by the Pew Center; second is the 30-49 set.
These also happen to be the two demographics most coveted by mid-sized cities trying to grow their economic base. Here, almost two-thirds of the city’s revenue comes from occupational taxes, which means that in order for the city to pay its bills, the people must be employed; in order for the city to really prosper, then, a chunk of those jobs should be good, high-paying ones. And those good, high-paying jobs? They’re going to young, educated workers — the same people who tend to hold more progressive social views — who are migrating toward the knowledge sector and away from more traditional service and manufacturing gigs, which have historically provided Louisville’s base.
It’s worth considering that socially regressive lawmaking in service of a political-minority point of view not only looks absurd to much of the outside world, but it also has the potential to adversely affect our long-term economic prospects.
“[Kentucky is] being left behind,” Cowgill says. “There’s a lot of progress being made for not only gay rights, but just human rights in general, and it just shows that Louisville’s not ahead of the curve on that, and Kentucky in general. It’s always been the coastal states that have been the most progressive and have the most progressive laws protecting rights, and it just kind of lumps Kentucky in with more of those southern states that are really out of touch.”
Hunched over a white laptop at a table inside a St. Matthews coffeehouse, Jessica Daniels and Karrah Sampson are shopping for a condominium online. The former a flamboyant ex-cheerleader who hasn’t lost any zip and the latter a less-feminine woman who can alternately welcome and destroy you with her seizing eyes, Daniels and Sampson have been together three years. They have a 1-year-old daughter, Hayden Danielle Sampson, a good-natured and happy baby who is the absolute spitting image of her birth mother.
Unlike many gay couples, and in fact most people who adopt, Sampson and Daniels were not intentional parents; they did not have to prove themselves to have a child. A little over a year ago, Sampson was raped in a Louisville hotel after a long night of partying. She found out two months later she was pregnant, and decided immediately she had no interest in finding the father, regardless of the circumstances; she wanted to keep the baby.
Turns out Daniels, 23, is the more maternal one. In their two-bedroom apartment above a law office in St. Matthews on a recent weekday evening, the blonde Daniels bounces around with Hayden on her hip, trying to keep her entertained, while Sampson sits and chats. The 31-year-old admits she came to motherhood a little slower than Daniels.
Now, as Daniels contemplates finishing her degree and Sampson maintains her steady job as a yardmaster for CSX, the two are beginning to explore ways for Daniels to make some legal connection to Hayden. As it is now, Hayden would go to Daniels under provisions lined out in Sampson’s will; however, because of state law, Sampson’s parents — who live in eastern Kentucky and have gone cold to their daughter since she came out three years ago — could challenge the will and get custody of Hayden. Obtaining benefits — whether health, custody, life insurance, Social Security, and so on — is one of the most common institutional problems for gay and lesbian couples and families in America.
The couple says they’ve considered moving to a friendlier, more open city, if only to make this aspect of their lives easier. “I know lots of people who want to come to Louisville, who like Louisville, but won’t move now, because of [this law],” Daniels says.
“Gay people have money,” Sampson says. “They’re turning people with money away every day because it’s not open enough. Especially couples that are young, want to come here and maybe adopt, have kids. They’re not going to. They’re going to go somewhere else. They’ll take their business and they’ll take their money and they’ll go somewhere else.”
As far as Paul Campion is concerned, the state is taking a few steps backward for every one it advances.
“Image-wise, I thought we were headed in the right direction with the fairness [law], all of that, and a couple other cities have that as well. I thought we were on the right path. …The impact of [the 2004 marriage amendment] was severe, but this is much more severe because we’re talking about children that, for the rest of their lives, will not be able to have a family they call their own.”
Deep in a suburb in southeast Louisville, on the edge of the development frontier, is the home of Paul Campion and Randy Johnson. A big, angular thing of early ’90s exurban architecture, the house boasts some 5,000 square feet. It is brick and has many windows; a Louisville Cardinals flag offers a certain kind of gravity to the front stoop, and two black vehicles — a new BMW 328i and a slightly older Ford Explorer — are parked in the driveway, which curves into a large garage.
The house next door has been for sale more than a year; across the street, the mortgage mess has left one of these pretties in foreclosure. The family who lives on the other side is two adults and five children, and the neighbors get along quite nicely, by all indicators. When the father comes to the Johnson-Campion house on a recent Saturday afternoon, following his son, who is in his early teens, items discussed include: the haphazardly finished roadway leading to their houses, left as such by developers who are waiting for more people to inhabit this enclave of Pine Estates before topping off the pavement; a scar on the neighbor-kid’s hip, the result of a skateboarding mishap caused by some inconsistencies in said roadway; the Louisville basketball game against West Virginia this evening, which would clinch the Cards’ first Big East regular season title; the sudden onset of spring weather, sure to fade as quickly.
They’ve just eaten a lunch of Domino’s pizza on paper plates, followed by home-baked chocolate chip cookies, the soft kind, still warm out of the oven when everyone digs in. The six are situated around a dinner table just off the kitchen, and they say a prayer before launching into the grub. They don’t go to church, but both men were raised to believe a version of Christianity, and they clearly want to instill some kind of spiritualism in their four kids. Above the fireplace in the next room hangs a massive portrait of the six, looking rather exalted. Just above the television is a framed sign that reads, “Give Love, Gather Love.” A statue of the Virgin Mary faces it from the opposite side of the room.
The men don’t make a point of acknowledging to the kids which parent is the legal one for which child; because state law doesn’t allow both to be legal parents to each adopted child, they had to split them up. They were meticulous about it; if one parent dies, the other isn’t getting any benefits. So they made sure their legal children would have clear access to some benefits. They have life insurance policies that funnel into an estate that can be executed by the other. It still doesn’t get them completely around the legal issues — Paul’s next of kin would still have more rights to some of the kids than Randy.
Tonight Randy’s niece’s kids are coming over. The plan is to watch the game, probably in the basement room that Randy has filled with the latest in multi-sensory entertainment: surround-sound stereo, a high-def projector TV, leather sofas. It’s a palace for overindulging in college basketball, which is what March means to a lot of people in this part of the country.
That is to say, it is exceedingly normal.