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Culhane: What do kids need?

What do kids need?

If you ask the Arizona legislature, they’ll tell you that they need a mother and a father who are married to each other. Legislation just signed by Governor Janet Brewer expresses a preference in adoption for married couples over everyone else – single people, co-habitating straight couples, gay and lesbian couples who can’t marry.

As a legal matter, the provisions are pretty weak tea: Marriage is just one factor to consider, and the agency charged with finding the children adoptive homes is required to place a child with a married couple only if all other factors are “equal” as between that couple and another prospective adopter.

Of course, all other factors are never equal, and the law dutifully states the catechism that the “best interest of the child” remains paramount. So I’d expect most social workers to continue placing children with all sorts of families, given the complexity and difficulty of finding “forever families” for many of these kids – especially those who are older, non-white, or disabled.

Indeed, it might well turn out that the married, privileged couples who usually go through private adoption will get the (usually white) babies they want, while the harder-to-place kids end up with single parents or in “alternative families” – often after they’ve gone through a series of foster homes. (Tellingly, no marital preference is expressed in foster care placement.) This may already be the case in Arizona, so the law might have little practical effect in this regard, either.

But its signaling effects could be much greater, and more damaging. The law sends two very disturbing messages.

First, as I’ve suggested above, it reinforces the idea that some families are better than others. While this view might appeal to someone like Amy Wax – the Penn law professor who asserted at a conference last Fall that there are “hierarchies” of families (I was there) – it should disturb any fair-minded person. And those who do the hard work of placing kids in adoptive and foster homes know that families and reality are more complex than Prof. Wax suggests.

Second, the law sends a message to all unmarried and unpartnered adults, especially gays and lesbians: We think you’re second-class as parents, so don’t bother trying to adopt. Again, even though the law is unlikely to have a big impact, it deliberately transmits the second-class signal with which we’re too sadly familiar.

The legislators, by the way, were perfectly willing to twist the social science to their ends. (Cue ironic gasps.) As is all-too-typical, they touted the research showing that kids do better in stable, two-parent homes than in homes headed by single parents but ignored evidence showing that children raised by same-sex parents do fine.

There was also a good deal of rhetoric about how adoption is about the kids’ needs, not the parents’. Fair enough. But what about the needs of LGBT youth in foster care? Let’s talk about what those kids need.

We know that their situation is often dire. They end up in foster care because they’ve been kicked out of their homes, beaten out of their local schools, and subjected to a barrage of hateful messages that can burrow into their core, robbing them of self-esteem and driving them to anti-social actions that make even harder the job of finding them suitable placements.

This legislation, and laws like it, don’t help. Although they don’t speak to foster care, they add to the negative noise about gay kids and families.

Yet the law, for all its evil possibility, might have less of a negative impact on these kids than I fear. Some of us – gay, lesbian, and sympathetic straight – will ignore the message that laws like this try to transmit, and take these children into our homes, where we can begin to help them construct their own counter-narrative.

Queer kids are already doing this. An article earlier this week in the New York Times chronicled how they’re standing up even at Christian schools that teach about the evils of homosexuality. The responses by some (not all) of these schools puts one in mind of the most chilling sort of out-of-touch autocracy, and puts on display some twisted efforts at justification. (At Harding University in Arkanasas, for example, officials blocked a site that featured personal account of the difficulties gay students were facing, and then told students, risibly, that the school was “not trying to control your thinking.”)

Despite these obstacles, many of them soldier on, sometimes affecting policy along the way, and other times finding a soft landing. They are putting their shoulders to the wheel of history, and you can hear the creak.

John Culhane’s new book, Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective, is now available on Kindle. He is working on a book about civil unions. He is Professor of Law at Widener University School of Law.
  1. Sporty_g
    April 21st, 2011 at 10:01 | #1

    What kids need is for politicians and other opportunistic political P.O.S. to stop useing them to make some social or policy statement…..These kids have been abused or abandoned by their parents, and then placed “in the care of the state”….which then further abuses them and turns them into a political football….. hardly the nurturing and positive message that any child needs…..good job Arizona, another fine job of ABUSING the residents of your state…

  2. April 21st, 2011 at 11:59 | #2

    Happy to be from Massachusetts!

  3. April 21st, 2011 at 12:54 | #3

    If you look at the statistics, the opposite-gender, two-parent, married couple model for raising children is in serious, serious, SERIOUS decline. It has been for a long time, but the slip in the past ten years has been particularly steep. For many major metropolitan areas, it’s already significantly under 50%.

    So, I see a lot of this effort to codify “family hierarchies” (married straight couples at the top, of course) as a last gasp temper tantrum. It’s an attempt to stop the current trends, and it won’t work; the genie’s out of the bottle.

    I’m not saying that straight, married couples will cease to exist. All that is about to happen is that they have to yield overwhelming status and support that they have enjoyed for many, many years. And–surprise, surprise–this is yet another example of people being unwilling to cede positions of power without a fight. They are the “Gaddafi” of family structures. 😉

  4. Morgan
    April 21st, 2011 at 13:43 | #4

    Professor Culhane,

    Not all gay people be they teens or adults ID as queer.

  5. April 21st, 2011 at 17:55 | #5

    Morgan: I know. One of the constantly vexing areas in writing on LGBT issues is what terms to use. I really try to use the term that I think best fits the context: sometimes that’s “gay and lesbian”; sometimes, “LGBT” and sometimes, queer. I deliberately chose “queer” toward the end of the column to describe these kids because it was the easiest shorthand I had to convey the “otherness” of kids who suffer most in adolescence. They are SEEN as “queer” in the sense of different, even if they don’t identify themselves as a member of the LGBT community. So I was trying to make the word do a lot of work.
    I guess the takeaway point I’d like to make is that I’m very aware of the power of words, and try to choose them surgically, for the operation at hand. Yet I’m always willing to listen to other views on whatever word(s) I ultimately choose.

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