Lesbian couple sues state over law prohibiting adoption

Not allowing unmarried couples to adopt hurts the kids, they say

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 23, 2012

A same-sex couple from Hazel Park filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette today, saying it’s unconstitutional for the state to keep unmarried couples from adopting.

The two women are April DeBoer, 40, a neo-natal intensive care nurse, and Jayne Rowse, 47, an emergency room nurse. They have been in a committed relationship for 10 years and have lived together for six years. They own a home and have three kids, but can’t jointly share guardianship of them due to the law.

“Basically, it (the lawsuit) is to protect their rights, in that if something happens to one of us, that they should receive the other partner’s Social Security benefits, any inheritance, things along that line,” Rowse said. “It’s all about the kids. For us, to protect them is the major focus.”

Currently, state law allows married couples and single parents to adopt, but not unmarried couples, both hetero- and homosexual. In their lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit, the plaintiffs say this violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which is often interpreted as an attempt to honor the concept of “all men are created equal,” and was extended to state governments whereas before that, the Bill of Rights protected only from invasion by the federal government.

The federal judge has been asked to block Snyder and Schuette, sued in their official capacities, from enforcing the law, as well as state judges.

Representing DeBoer and Rowse are attorneys Dana Nessel, based in Detroit, and Carole Stanyar, based in Plymouth. They contend there is no rational basis for the state to discriminate in this manner, and that the law is not tailored narrowly enough to avoid clashing with the Equal Protection clause.

DeBoer and Rowse took in all three children when they were just newborns. One was born to a 19-year-old mother. A homeless woman surrendered another, and a drug-addicted prostitute abandoned the other.

Rowse adopted the oldest child, 3-year-old Nolan, which means DeBoer has no parental rights to him. Likewise, Rowse has no parental rights to 2-year-old Ryanne, adopted by DeBoer. The third child, Jacob, was their foster child for awhile; they had state-certified guardianship of the child while he was foster care, but now they have to choose which of them will adopt him, and which of them will lose parental rights.

That is, unless the law changes.

“Our parental duty is to protect the kids from anything and everything, and if, heaven forbid, something happened to one of us, it’s about them staying with us in the family unit,” Rowse said. “The way it is now, if something happened to me, my two sons wouldn’t necessarily go to April; someone could step in and say they’d be a great parent, and it could be a big fight that April could lose.

“In that situation,” Rowse continued, “not only would April lose, but so would our daughter, because those are her brothers; she knows nothing else other than us and her brothers. By the same token, my sons only know April’s parents as her grandparents; my parents are deceased.”

In other words, it tears the family up in more ways than one.

“Ripping (the family) apart isn’t in the kids’ interest,” Rowse said.

DeBoer noted that under state law, gays can’t get married, and thus gays could never adopt as a couple. DeBoer and Rowse would marry if the law allowed it.

“I don’t believe our lives are any different than anyone else’s,” DeBoer said. “We go to work, we cook, we clean, we change diapers, we take them to their doctors’ appointments. Jacob has physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy he goes to every week. We share in raising our children. We’re in an equal partnership like any other marriage.

“It’s a long, thought-out process,” she said of adopting. “We didn’t enter into this lightly; we had to think about it, discuss it. These children that we have are wanted children, they are loved children. They’re absolutely bonded to both of us and each other.”

DeBoer described how the 3-year-old, Nolan, will go up to his siblings’ crib and grow concerned when they’re not there, not knowing they’re already up with the other parent.

“Those are his brother and his sister,” DeBoer said.

Nessel, one of the attorneys, noted there’s no reason to keep gays and lesbians from adopting.

“There’s extensive research on this subject as to whether two parents of the same sex can parent just as well as opposite-sex couples, married or not, and all the research tells us that all the kids who grow up with two parents, no matter what their genders, so long as they’re loved by the parents, and so long as the parents are in a healthy relationship, those kids turn out equally good,” Nessel said. “That’s part of our argument when it comes to whether the state can provide a rational basis to deny Jayne and April the right to raise these kids.”

Aside from the family being split up, there is also the concern that if the ban continues to exist, the kids could be denied benefits such as social security, workers compensation, pensions and insurance, as well as one parent being able to make decisions if something happens to the other.

“There are so many ways in which this law hurts families,” Nessel said. “We can’t think of a single way in which it helps families, and that’s a big part of why we’re challenging the law.”

Sara Wurfel, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email that aiming the complaint at the governor and attorney general seems misguided.

“The governor's been clear in his support for adoptive families, and in particular the work of DHS to strengthen children's services and matching kids in foster care with permanent families,” Wurfel said. “However, I don't know how much we can add to this, as Michigan statute is very clear that married couples may adopt, and single individuals, whether heterosexual or gay/lesbian, may adopt as long as they are deemed fit and willing parents under the law in either case. But unmarried partners, whether straight or gay, may not jointly adopt.

“This is a complaint that seems more appropriate to direct to the legislature to amend the statute,” Wurfel said, “rather than a federal judge and a lawsuit against the governor and attorney general.”