LANSING, Mich. — Kathleen Edsall and her partner have adopted eight children over the last 25 years. The East Lansing couple has navigated the adoption process in three different states.
Michigan has been the most difficult.
Even after the Marriage Equality Act made same-sex marriage legal in the United States, a 2015 Michigan law allowed private adoption agencies to turn away people looking to adopt for religious reasons.
That meant single-parent homes, LGBTQ families, and couples were forced to look elsewhere.
In the years since interpretations of the law have discouraged discrimination in same-sex adoptions but the laws aren’t official, state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. said.
“I want to codify into statute that those discriminations should never have existed,” he said. “As somebody who has adopted a child, I can tell you that kids need love. They need a lot of care, but they don’t care what the sexuality of their parents are, and we have thousands of kids right now that need homes in Michigan.”
Hertel Jr., along with other Senate Democrats, reintroduced legislation that would formally remove barriers that stop same-sex couples from accessing services from state-funded adoption agencies and expand adoption rights to couples in Michigan.
Many faith-based adoption agencies still receive funding from the state to place children into homes, even though they are technically allowed to turn away families that don't fit with their religious beliefs.
“We can't continue to have barriers for certain couples in finding access to an adoption agency while other couples can have free reign of the services that the state of Michigan supports,” said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, the Senate’s first and only openly gay member.
Moss went on to explain that in the battle over who can adopt children in Michigan the ones who miss out the most are the children themselves.
“The biggest losers are the children who are wanting and deserving of loving homes. And if it's a hetero couple, if it's an LGBTQ couple and they can demonstrate that they would provide a loving home, why would we want those children to continue to languish without parents when there are viable homes that the state can help direct and place them in?” Moss asked. “So that's the issue here is what is best for the children.”
According to the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange there are upwards of 250 children in Michigan waiting to be adopted. Many more are in foster care.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that the number and types of children that are waiting for families in our state is significant,” said Amy Bailey, who serves as the Child Welfare Program director with CASA of Michigan. “I would say to the community if some families can take some of those kids if those kids can have families, then those children should have the right to have a family, regardless of my personal feelings or preferences about what that family does, as long as they're able to keep kids safe and nurture them and help those children heal from past trauma. Those are the families we want, regardless of their family makeup.”
Bailey said, for her, the issue comes down to access.
“So I would never say anything negative about my colleagues and counterparts that have religious beliefs that aren't in line with LGBTQ families. They all do great work. But I think we can't ignore the fact that LGBTQ families in certain regions don't have access to non-religious organizations,” she said.
Some families might only have access to faith-based adoption services in their area and then are forced to look elsewhere when they cannot be helped. Bailey also noted that LGBTQ families face discrimination throughout the adoption process.
“They have to come out multiple times in the process,” she said. “ You have to out yourself essentially on all of that paperwork, that's just the process of being approved. Once you're approved and you have a child maybe in your home, then you have to again go through that process with a foster care or adoption worker or both.”
Nick Reaves, an attorney who represents St. Vincent Catholic Charities, argued that even though the organization has refused to help LGBTQ couples, they always refer them to agencies that will.
“If there's a foster parent who comes to St. Vincent and wants to adopt a child or foster a child and Catholic Charities can't serve them, they'll help them find one of several other foster care agencies in Lansing,” he said. “I don't think there really is an access problem across Michigan.”
But lawmakers and advocates disagree. Hertel argues that given the vast number of children waiting to find their permanent homes no family should be dismissed.
“At the end of the day, Michigan should be a state that's welcome to all people and we shouldn't allow for discrimination, period,” he said. “So those same protections that we put in place for people of color and for women belong to be enshrined in Michigan law for gay, lesbian, and transgender people as well.”