For many boys and girls, Election Day did not bring new hope; it robbed them of it.
That was certainly the case in Arkansas, where voters decided to slash the number of families available to provide safe, caring homes for abused and neglected children languishing in the state's foster care system. They did that by approving a referendum — aimed squarely at gays and lesbians — prohibiting unmarried, cohabiting couples from becoming foster or adoptive parents.
Viewed through the prism of what best serves the interests of children who need homes, the debate about gay and lesbian parenting (within or outside of marriage) is not a close call. The research is clear: Children grow up far better in families than in temporary care or institutions, and their outcomes are comparable whether their parents are straight or gay.
A new report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, “Expanding Resources for Waiting Children,” which I head, points out some critical facts:
• About 129,000 children in foster care are legally free for adoption, and not enough adults are filling the need in any state; the 25,000 who “age out” of the system each year face a very high risk of negative outcomes such as homelessness, poverty, incarceration and early parenthood.
• Gays and lesbians, studies show, are more willing to adopt children with special needs — which most boys and girls in foster care have — than are heterosexuals.
• Adoption from foster care yields between $3.3 billion and $6.3 billion in savings nationally each year, while a nationwide ban on foster parenting by gays and lesbians would add $87 million to $130 million in total costs for states to find other caretakers.
The report suggests that joint adoption (when both parents adopt at the same time) and second-parent adoption (when a partner or spouse later adopts the child) should expand from the handful of states where they are currently permitted for gays and lesbians to become the norm from coast to coast. The arguments for doing so are based principally on the benefits to children, ranging from health insurance to legal protections to the emotional security of feeling part of a “normal” family.
Because these arguments apply to marriage as well, many child advocates are concerned about the results of Nov. 4 voting in California, Florida and Arizona to allow only heterosexuals to marry. But the most direct, problematic result for children that day clearly took place in Arkansas.
While the referendum was aimed at gays and lesbians, it also removes qualified cohabitating heterosexuals from the pool of prospective adoptive parents. It is an audacious action that undermines the prospects for needy children to get homes, made all the more unnerving by reports that its advocates plan to build on their “success” by working to repeat it in other states.
Whatever anyone may believe personally about parenting by lesbians, gay men and unmarried heterosexual couples, can it really be acceptable for some children, by law, to be granted less of a shot in life than others? Most troubling, can it really be true that there are people who think a child is better off with no parents than ones who are living together outside of traditional marriage?
On the eve of a new presidency, if we as a nation are to bring real hope to vulnerable boys and girls who have so little of it, we need to finally address those troubling questions.
Adam Pertman is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York.