Critics say policy unfairly limits pool of possible foster, adoptive parents
CINCINNATI — Child welfare organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union are criticizing an Ohio county’s adoption and foster parent policy that gives preference to married couples.
They question whether the policy in Butler County discriminates against same-sex and unmarried couples as well as single people. They say they’re also concerned it will discourage prospective parents from trying to adopt children.
Some states have enacted laws that go even further by banning unmarried couples as adoptive or foster parents. The American Civil Liberties is challenging those laws.
The Butler County Children Services policy, which started in December, also is causing concern for single heterosexuals.
"I think it’s a slap in the face," said Meg Melampy, 40, of Middletown, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati. "I’ve had foster children for almost six years, and now I have an adopted son. I don’t think being single means I can’t be a good parent."
Agency director Michael Fox said the policy doesn’t restrict adoption or foster parenting by singles — gay or heterosexual — or nontraditional couples. He said the child’s interest remains the main consideration.
"This policy is not an attack on any group," Fox said. "It’s an affirmation of volumes of social research telling us that children who grow up in families where there are two parents generally do better than those who grow up in single or nontraditional families."
The Public Children Services Association of Ohio and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said they know of no other public agency in Ohio with a similar policy. National groups said they also aren’t aware of similar policies at the local agency level.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas is suing to overturn a law that took effect there in January prohibiting unmarried couples from being foster or adoptive parents. A Florida judge last year ruled that a law in that state that blocked gay people from adopting children is unconstitutional.
Jerry Friedman, executive director of the American Public Human Services Association, said it’s difficult enough to find good adoptive homes for thousands of foster children across the country without creating policies that could limit the pool of prospective parents.
"The need of the child needs to be paramount, and we have found through the years that there are a lot of different environments in which children can thrive," Friedman said.
Scott Greenwood, an Ohio attorney and a general counsel for the ACLU, said Butler County’s policy seems to go beyond hostility to gay people by also favoring married couples over unmarried heterosexuals.
"This agency certainly should recognize that married couples don’t automatically provide the stability or even safety for children in adopted or foster care," said Greenwood, referring to the case of Marcus Fiesel.
Fiesel, a 3-year-old Butler County boy, died in 2006 after his foster parents, who were married, left him bound inside a closet for two days.
Fox, who wasn’t the children’s services director then, said the preference for traditional married couples is one of many filters the agency uses when placing children. He said there is a big difference between giving preference and discriminating.
Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values, which supported Ohio’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, called the policy "common sense."
"If you look at the optimal situation for these kids, it’s with a mom and a dad," said David Miller, CCV’s vice president for public policy. "We all know that is the ideal situation."
National data show nearly a third of the adoptions of children in foster care are by single parents, according to Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.
"Not encouraging singles to adopt is shooting yourself in the foot," Kroll said. "And the notion that putting heterosexual married couples — a group with a 50 percent divorce rate — on a pedestal doesn’t make sense."
Butler County’s three-member Board of Commissioners said in a statement March 12 that it only recently learned of the policy, which it said was established without the board’s knowledge or consent.
"Everyone is losing focus on the fact that placements involving children are always looked at on a case-by-case basis, based on the best interest of the child," said county Administrator Tim Williams, speaking on behalf of the board.
He said commissioners are reviewing the policy in light of Ohio law but have not had time to reach any conclusions.
"Since Mr. Fox is retiring at then end of the month, we need to be very cautious about establishing new policies and principles," Williams said.