ACLU files suit challenging ban on gay foster, adoptive parents

by Dallas Voice Staff

The Dallas Voice

Sunday January 4, 2009

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Opponents of an Arkansas law that bans unmarried couples from fostering or adopting children announced Tuesday, Dec. 30, that they had filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down the new law.

The Arkansas chapter of ACLU held a news conference Tuesday morning during which plaintiffs described how Act 1, set to go into effect on Thursday, Jan. 1, impacts their families and why they decided to be part of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that Act 1 violates federal and state constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. The Arkansas Family Council, a conservative group that campaigned for the ban, said it was aimed at gay couples but the law will affect heterosexuals and homosexuals equally.

Stephanie Huffman was one of those plaintiffs. Huffman adopted one child from the state in 2004 and on Tuesday spoke about how she and her partner of 10 years, Wendy Rickman, want to adopt a second child or a pair of siblings through the Arkansas Department of Children and Family Services.

They can't do that now because of Act 1.

"The state already knows we're good enough parents that they placed one child with us before Act 1 passed. Who knows how many children are now cut off by this law from loving homes," Huffman said.

Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said her agency has been hearing from "all corners of the state from dozens of families who are panicking about how Act 1 impacts them. This law hurts families and children in many ways.

"It takes away parents' right to decide for themselves who will adopt their children if they die. It denies the many children in Arkansas state care a chance at the largest possible pool of potential foster and adoptive homes, and denies couples who are living together but unmarried the chance to provide loving homes to children who desperately need them," Sklar said.

Arkansas Department of Human Services officials have said they do not expect to have to remove any foster children from their homes when the new law takes effect Thursday. The state had already barred cohabiting unmarried couples from becoming foster parents and was in the process of reversing that policy when voters approved the new ban.

The law does not affect any adoptions that were finalized before it takes effect.

Gov. Mike Beebe had opposed the law because he said it would limit the number of homes for children who need them, but in an interview earlier this month said he would not take sides in any legal fights over the law.

"We'll let the judicial branch worry about the judicial part of it," Beebe told The Associated Press. "In the meantime, we'll try to serve as many kids as we can."

The ACLU had represented the four plaintiffs in a lawsuit that led the state Supreme Court to overturn the state's ban on gay foster parents in 2006. The Family Council had campaigned for the initiated act in response to that ruling.

Among those joining Huffman and Rickman as plaintiffs are Sheila Cole, Frank Pennisi and Matt Harrison, Meredith and Benny Scroggin, Cary and Trina Kelley and Kaytee Wright.

Cole lives in Tulsa, Okla., with her partner of nine years, Jennifer. Cole's adult daughter from a previous relationship had a baby girl in May, and the child was placed in the Arkansas foster care system when she was two months old.

Cole wants to adopt her granddaughter and makes a four-hour round trip to Bentonville, Ark., each week to see the child for two hours. She has taken foster parenting classes in Oklahoma and has passed a home study, and is now waiting for approval from Arkansas state officials. But she is concerned that the new law will keep the state from allowing her to adopt.

Pennisi and Harrison have been together for eight years and now live in Little Rock and want to be foster parents. Meredith Scroggin is Harrison's cousin, and if something were to happen to her and her husband Benny, they want Harrison and Pennisi to be able to adopt their children.

Cary and Trina Kelley have two daughters, and in the event of their death, they want their children to be adopted by Cary's mother, Vickie Kelley, and her partner of 16 years, Sophia Estes. Estes and Vickie Kelley have three children and six grandchildren between them.

Trina Kelley spent many years of her childhood in state care and has said she feels very strongly that children should not be kept from loving relatives like Estes and Vickie Kelley.

Wright lives in Cabot with her partner of five years, Alan Leveritt, helping him raise his 8-year-old daughter from a previous marriage of whom he has joint custody. The couple are also providing a home and financial assistance to a mother and her two young children through a Little Rock shelter for the working homeless.

Wright was adopted from state care at the age of four weeks and has said she, too, feels very strongly that children in state care should be provided with good homes. She also said she would like to adopt a child but because she and Leveritt are not married, they can't adopt.

The plaintiffs are represented by Christine P. Sun, Rose Saxe and Leslie Cooper of the ACLU, Stacey Friedman, Garrad Beeney and Jennifer Sheinfeld of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Marie-Bernarde Miller and Daniel J. Beck of Williams & Anderson PLC on behalf of the ACLU Foundation of Arkansas.

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