NC judges under attack for second-parent adoptions

by on September 3, 2009  •  In Family law

HT to Nancy Polikoff for alerting me to the following story from the News & Observer about the backlash against progressive North Carolina judges, whose willingness to grant second-parent adoptions became publicly visible in the wake of such an adoption being upheld in the Boseman case. This will be a state to watch as conservative groups seek opportunities to enact anti-gay laws.

Hundreds of gay couples in North Carolina have turned to judges in Orange and Durham counties to give them what most courts won't: the legal right to be a parent to their partner's child. The discreet and little-known practice came to light this week in a state Court of Appeals ruling on a custody battle between a biological mother and her estranged partner, a state senator. Now that the practice has been exposed, some lawmakers and legal experts say the adoptions should stop.

The judges who granted them say they're more confident and committed than ever to extending parental rights to unmarried partners. "These are nothing but good situations, nothing but harmony and hope and a desire to care for a child," said Pat DeVine, a recently retired Orange County District Court judge who works as a substitute judge. "It's 2009, and we have situations we didn't have 20 years ago. The polar star is what's in the best interest of the child."…

"Everyone wishes there's a mother and a father and a happy family, but the truth is that our families are not like that," said Marcia Morey, Durham County District Court judge who granted Boseman's adoption in 2005. "Families come to us for answers, and we will give them based on the best interest of the child."

Such adoptions became commonplace in Durham County in 2002. Sharon Thompson, a Durham family lawyer and a former state representative, asked her county clerk of courts and local judges to consider what she had seen a few other states do: waiving the requirement that a parent forfeit rights before another can adopt.

Thompson said that citizens can waive legal rights. She argued that surrendering legal parenthood before an adoption is a benefit and protection for the parent who wishes to give up the child. Therefore, she argued, the surrender is a right that can be waived.

"I certainly didn't invent the concept," said Thompson, who has handled hundreds of these adoptions in Durham and Orange counties. "It's not widely used, but it's legally sound." Parents from across the state have hired Thompson to secure a second-parent adoption. She said that she's presented these cases in her home county of Durham and also had success in neighboring Orange County….

"If people fault me for going to Durham County, the fault is with counties that refuse to follow the law and deny adoptions simply because someone is gay," she said.

Adoption law experts say Thompson's method isn't valid. Even the Court of Appeals gently criticized the process in its ruling this week. Cheryl Howell, a family law expert at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Government who trains district court judges, said it's a mistake for judges to view the Court of Appeals ruling as a validation of second-parent adoptions. "The statute doesn't allow for second-parent adoptions," Howell said. "I stand firm on that." …

"The effect of this is that adoption policy can now be set by our district court judges," said state Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican and a lawyer. "All people have to do now is find one district court judge who will do what they want. That's the lowest common denominator adoption policy."

State Sen. Jim Forrester, a Gaston County Republican, said it might be time for legislators to explicitly tell judges what kind of families can adopt children. Judges, who are elected, have broad discretion to interpret and rule on laws. This often leads to very different decisions rendered in similar cases across the state. …


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