The bill has a premise that few could argue with and that research has supported: Married, two-parent families are generally good for children.
But the devil is in the details, as well as the perceptions created by HB2696, which would give married couples preference over single people in adopting Arizona’s foster children.
Is it pro-family? Is it antigay? Or is it, as its sponsor maintains, simply common sense?
“All this says is, all other things being equal, if a married couple is willing to adopt they ought to be given preference,” said Rep. Steve Tully, RPhoenix. “So far I haven’t heard a good argument as to why that shouldn’t be the case.”
Single adoptive parents, child advocates, adoption recruiters and the state Department of Economic Security oppose the bill because they say it would make it nearly impossible for any of the nearly 300 Arizona children who await adoption to be placed with single parents.
These critics’ experience with single adoptive parents shows that, in some cases, they are superior to married couples, who may lack the time, commitment, education or financial resources to deal with the issues arising with adopting an abused or neglected child.
They say the bill would create another layer of bureaucracy that, at best, would delay adoption by single parents for months, leaving foster children in limbo.
And they’re concerned that, if the bill becomes law, singles will no longer consider adopting foster children because they’ll see it as a lost cause.
“I think it’s an affront to all single people, to say that your child would be better off with a married couple,” said Susan Frank, a single attorney who works in the foster care system and is adopting 10-monthold Ethan. “This bill is very bad for the foster children of Arizona.”
Under current law, prospective adoptive parents must complete training, background checks and a home study by the state or a private adoption agency before a juvenile court judge certifies them as qualified to adopt. Once a foster child is identified, a judge, the child’s caseworkers, attorneys and others who know the foster child determine the best adoptive home.
The law does not grant a preference to married couples, but those who work in the child welfare system say marital status is a factor in some cases.
The bill would give married couples preference over all others, unless a single person was related to the child, had already established a “meaningful and healthy relationship” with the child or a judge decided that a single-parent adoption is in the child’s best interest.
Frank said those exceptions “are virtually meaningless” in the cases of children who are free for adoption but have no identified placement.
Of the 2,170 children who had a case plan of adoption as of Sept. 30, nearly 1,900 were already living with relatives or foster families that would be adopting them. The remaining 272 had no one waiting, and Frank said children in those cases have exhausted other options.
But Tully said the bill’s exceptions give judges the ability to decide when a singleparent family would be best for a child, and an amendment is expected to also allow an exception if the single person is willing to adopt a specialneeds child.
Frank said that “best interest” determination would add several months to an already lengthy process.
Adoption agencies routinely work with single parents, but it’s difficult to determine how many of the roughly 1,000 foster children adopted annually joined single-parent families.
Tully said he doesn’t recall how the idea for the bill came about, but believes that research backs up the policy.
“We have a problem in society with the breakdown of the family,” he said. “And all social statistics seem to indicate that the best situation for children is a two-parent intact family. . . . It seems to me that it ought to be the policy of this state. We ought to give children the best possible situation.”
The bill caught the attention of a national gay rights organization, Family Pride, which issued news releases and organized a group to testify against the measure before the Senate Family Services Committee last week. The bill cleared the committee and now goes to the full Senate for debate.
Tully said he’s mystified by claims that the bill is anti-gay. But it is backed by the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which lists HB2696 among its 15-part legislative agenda.
“It’s not saying singles can’t adopt, singles can’t be good parents,” he said. “It doesn’t even deal with the issue of homosexuality.”
Although state agencies typically don’t take positions on legislation, DES, which oversees the child welfare system, is concerned about “the unintended consequences of this bill,” said spokeswoman Liz Barker.
“Our concern is that the overall message is: ‘Married couples only,’ ” Barker said. “We’re really concerned about the chilling effect this bill would have on single people considering adoption.”
Frank said the bill could prevent her from adopting a brother or sister for Ethan, who is surrounded by a doting extended family full of male role models.
“The fact is, if this law were in effect a year ago, I would not have him,” Frank said. “And I can’t even imagine life without him.”