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Experts clash on gays' bids to adopt children

Dueling social-science testimony marked a trial over a gay North Miami man's petition to adopt his two foster children.

BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER, cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

adoptDuring 15 years as a child-welfare judge, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman has been a lawyer, a social worker and even a bit of a cheerleader, encouraging troubled parents to make better choices.

When Lederman rules later this month on a gay foster father's petition to adopt the two small boys he has raised since 2004, she will have to wear yet another hat: social scientist.

In a one-week trial peppered with words like ''null hypothesis,'' ''central limit theorem'' and ''Pearson correlation,'' a half-dozen experts in psychology, epidemiology, sociology and family studies presented starkly different views on whether gay men and women can be as good at parenting as straight people. The trial, which ran Oct. 1-6, was closed to the public, but The Miami Herald has obtained a transcript of the testimony.

Florida law bans gays from adopting. Valerie J. Martin, a Florida assistant attorney general who defended the statute, said same-sex couples are at far greater risk of many social ills, and ``putting children who are already at risk into such a household would increase the stressors that these children already experience as a result of their placement in foster care.''

Countered Leslie Cooper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the foster father: ``We heard, over the course of this trial, heaps and heaps of scientific evidence about gay parents and gay people. There is absolutely no reasonable scientific dispute on the subject of whether children who are raised by gay parents are disadvantaged in any way.''

The judge's ruling will determine whether a 4-year-old boy and his 8-year-old brother can be adopted by Frank Gill, the North Miami foster parent who has raised the boys for four years, and his partner. Lederman said she will decide on the adoption later this month.

Florida is the only state that bans all gay people from adopting. This fall, a Circuit Court judge in Key West declared Florida's ban unconstitutional, although the decision is unlikely to hold much sway because it was not appealed to a higher court. Since the state is fighting Gill's attempt to adopt the two boys, a decision by Lederman to declare the law unconstitutional would be of far greater consequence.

Most likely, the case will ultimately be decided by the Third District Court of Appeal or the Florida Supreme Court.

CHILDREN'S STAKE

Who will be allowed to adopt in Florida is a question with significance not just for prospective parents. Only two states have a larger number of foster children waiting to be adopted, said Florida State University social-work professor Patricia Lager, who testified for Gill at the trial.

About 22,000 Florida children are in state care, and more than 4,000 foster children are eligible for adoption, according to the state Department of Children & Families.

Gill, 47, never set out to challenge Florida's controversial adoption law, which allows drug abusers and felons to adopt but imposes a blanket ban on gay people. But in December 2004, a DCF abuse investigator asked Gill and his 34-year-old partner to care for two half-brothers for a few months while their parents tried to regain custody.

It became clear within months that the boys' parents would never be able to win back the right to raise them -- their parental rights were terminated in 2006 -- and an early plan for the boys to live with a grandmother fell through.

A ROADBLOCK

Eventually, child-welfare administrators acknowledged that the boys were thriving in Gill's home, and they have made no attempts to move them. When Gill petitioned to adopt, administrators said they would have approved the request, but state law doesn't allow it.

At trial, the state's defense of the adoption law rested on the shoulders of two scholars -- George A. Rekers, a retired professor from the University of South Carolina, who taught neuropsychiatry and behavioral science, and Walter R. Schumm, an assistant professor of family studies at Kansas State University.

Rekers and Schumm argued that lawmakers were justified in excluding gay people from adoption because research shows that they are at greater risk of developing a host of impairments that can harm children, such as mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, and the virus that causes AIDS.

Schumm testified that, based on research involving 2,847 children, the children of gay men and lesbians are far more likely to also become gay -- about 19 percent of children raised by gay parents, compared with 4 percent of children with straight parents.

Schumm said he was also concerned by a study that said that 47 percent of gay teenagers had seriously considered suicide, and that 36 percent had attempted it. ''If a child is gay, lesbian or bisexual, this is, in some sense, a life-threatening issue,'' he said.

Gay men and lesbians have two to four times the likelihood of suffering from major depression, anxiety or substance abuse, based on several national studies, Rekers testified. Gay men, he said, are four times more likely than straight men to attempt suicide.

Depressed people, Rekers said, ''are less consistent in their parenting, less positive [and] have higher rates of neglecting child needs.'' Gay people, he added, ``would have less capability of providing the kind of nurturing and secure emotional environment for children.''

The lives of gay people can also be stressful to children, Rekers testified. The children may experience teasing and bullying from other children who don't approve of their parents' orientation. And children with gay parents are likely to suffer from repeated separations because gay people are more likely to have multiple failed relationships.

Rekers said he would, in fact, favor banning anyone from adopting who had more than 18 ''sex partners'' during a lifetime. ''I think that would be a very good social policy,'' he said in a deposition.

He said he would also consider banning Native Americans from adopting because research shows that they are also at much higher risk of mental illness and substance abuse. ''They would tend to hang around each other,'' Rekers testified. ``So the children would be around a lot of other Native Americans who are . . . doing the same sorts of things.''

THE OTHER SIDE

Scholars hired by Gill's team of lawyers harshly criticized Schumm and Rekers, suggesting that the two men did not reflect the mainstream of scholarly research.

''I don't want to in any way disrespect, but this is very far removed from anything that resembles the knowledge base that we have about how each of us develops our particular sexual makeup,'' Fred S. Berlin, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, testified about Rekers' work.

Under cross-examination, Rekers, who also has a theology degree, acknowledged that he taught and practiced psychology from a Christian perspective, and had written books condemning social science that doesn't recognize ``the moral laws of God.''

''To search for truth about homosexuality in psychology and psychiatry, while ignoring God, will result in futile and foolish speculations,'' Rekers wrote in a 1982 book.

In 2003, Schumm also said in a scholarly article that social science could be used to spread the word of God. ''With respect to integration of faith and research, I have been trying to use statistics to highlight the truth of the Scripture,'' he wrote.

One of Gill's experts, Susan D. Cochran, a professor of epidemiology and statistics at UCLA, accused Schumm of cooking some of the data he used to bolster his argument. ''This is taught in first-year statistics,'' Cochran testified. ``I was surprised he would do that.''

And one of Gill's attorneys, James Esseks, criticized Rekers for relying on the scholarly work of Paul Cameron, chairman of the Family Research Institute, who was dropped from the American Psychological Association in 1983 after he declined to cooperate with an investigation into whether he had distorted research on gay people.

ORGANIZATIONS' VIEWS

The APA is among a host of professional groups, including the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, that have issued statements opposing categorical bans on adoption by gay people.

Letitia A. Peplau, a psychology professor at UCLA, testified that many gay men and women live lives similar to those of their straight peers, with long-term committed relationships.

''Same-sex couples do many of the same things that I and my husband of 27 years do,'' she testified. ``They buy houses together. They invite friends and relatives to dinner. They celebrate birthdays and promotions. They support each other in times of crisis, and they try to build a future together.''

And Michael Lamb, a Yale-trained child development expert who teaches at Cambridge University, testified that research shows that children raised by lesbians and gay men are in no greater danger of experiencing adjustment, psychological, behavioral or gender identity problems than those raised in traditional households.

Lamb said he has seen challenges to such research from only ''advocacy groups and individuals who have a political ideological opposition'' to adoption by gay people. The evidence that gay people can parent as well as straight people, he said, ``is quite clear and consistent, and it's not controversial -- among scholars, I mean.''

Frank Gill is photographed with one of his foster children. CARL JUSTE / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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This drives me crazy. A loving parent is a loving parent, no matter their sexual orientation. There are so many children that need the love and support of a caring adult. It always amazes me the hoops one must jump through to adopt a child, but anyone that can get pregnant can have a child...whether they have a job, drug problem, or home. If only there was a system to qualify all parents equally.

interesting site u have there. Keep up the good work :)

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