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Adopting new rules


It all started innocently enough.

While working as a social worker at a Toledo, Ohio, foster home in the early 1990s, Beverly Davidson fell in love with another woman. The two started dating, then moved in together. After two years, they talked of having children. They researched the process and decided that Davidson's partner would be the one to be artificially inseminated.

They also had a lawyer devise a co-parenting agreement outlining what would happen to the child in case one partner died or the couple split up. All went according to plan. Davidson's partner soon became pregnant, then gave birth to a boy they named Jack.

"I played with him, made sure he was fed, I did what normal moms would do," says Davidson, 38, who now lives in Ann Arbor and works as an infant mental health specialist at the Washtenaw County Health Department. "I was his mother."

About 18 months after Jack was born, Davidson says she and her partner started experiencing difficulties and separated. Almost immediately, Davidson says, her partner began ignoring the parenting agreement, allowing Davidson to only visit Jack once every week or two. Davidson says she tried to go along with her partner's wishes for about a year, but eventually had enough.

Davidson went to court in an attempt to assert her rights as a parent. But the judge ruled the co-parenting agreement wasn't enforceable.

Since Davidson was not the biological parent or in a legally binding relationship with the biological mother, she was, in essence, at her partner's mercy with regard to seeing Jack. For a while, anyhow, there was at least some mercy. Davidson was allowed occasional time with the child she viewed as her son.

Then, about a year after the judge's ruling, Davidson's limited time with Jack came to a complete end.

"Just one day out of the clear blue sky when I dropped him off," Davidson says, "she said I was never to see Jack again. She slammed the door in my face."

That was nine years ago. Davidson says she hasn't seen Jack since. Even though she says she's sent him messages on his birthday, she's never received any response from him or her ex-partner.

Last December, state Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield) introduced House Bill 5399, which, if approved, would grant more parental security to people like Davidson.

But it's not just gay couples who would be affected.

Under current law, if an unmarried couple — be they gay or straight — want to adopt, only one parent is granted legal custody. Also, if an unmarried woman is artificially inseminated with sperm from a donor who isn't her partner, that partner is not considered a legal parent.

Condino's bill proposes that state adoption codes add "second-parent adoption rights" for Michigan residents, allowing two single adults to have joint legal custody over a child.

Condino says he decided to work on the bill after doing pro bono law work at area hospices. He says he found it "gut-wrenching" to witness unmarried women having to give up legal custody of their children before they succumbed to terminal diseases. In late 2004 he brought together members of the American Medical Association, the Michigan state bar association's family law section and other interested groups to hammer out a proposal allowing second-parent adoption rights.

"It wasn't targeted toward the gay community," he says. "We look at it as benefiting children. It just happens that the gay community benefits from this."

Currently, second-parent adoption rights are recognized in nine states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a California-based group that is generally cited as having developed the legal language used in obtaining second-parent adoption rights in the 1980s. Courtney Joslin, staff attorney for the group, says that second-parent adoption rights aren't just important for the emotional well-being for the parents — they can also be crucial for the child's health.

"When a child doesn't have a legal relationship with one or both parents, there can be very severe consequences for the child," she says. A child who loses its only legal guardian also loses its financial security and entitlement to health benefits. In some cases, a child who loses its biological parent may be sent to a foster home, even if a second parent still exists in its life.

The reasoning behind denying custody rights to unmarried couples is mostly a matter of legal technicalities, Joslin says.

"In many states, when a person is agreeing to have their child adopted, their own parental rights are terminated," she explains. "In second parent adoption, a person wants to maintain their parental rights while agreeing on someone else coming in as a child's second legal parent." Since gay marriages are not legally recognized in most states, she says, same-sex couples cannot adopt as a couple.

Dan Jarvis, research and policy director for the Michigan Family Forum, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Lansing, says this last point is crucial in his organization's opposition to Condino's bill.

"We think you're creating a rather strange legal entanglement" with second-parent adoptions, he says. "You're tying two adults to a child, even though those adults aren't legally bound to each other. Our more basic point is that we think a child needs a mother or father."

Aside from calling it "controversial," state Rep. Bill Van Regenmorter (R-Georgetown Twp.), who chairs the judiciary committee where Condino's bill is under review, wouldn't comment on the issue.

The state government's Office of Children's Ombudsman isn't as reticent. In its annual report issued in 2004, it recommended that the Michigan Adoption Code be amended to permit two unmarried adults to have legal custody of a child.

"All decisions regarding who should be given consent to legally adopt a child should be based on parental fitness, not on marital status," the report states.

The American Academy of Pediatrics — a nationwide group of about 60,000 pediatric physicians, psychologists and social workers — also supports that opinion, saying "children deserve to know that their relationships with both of their parents are stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex."

It's to promote these kinds of opinions that Davidson and others started the Coalition for Adoption Rights Equality in 2002. The Ann Arbor-based group works with lawmakers to promote legislation like Condino's bill.

This is the first Michigan bill proposed for second-parent adoption rights, says Kathleen LaTosch, a board member of CARE and spokeswoman for Affirmations, a gay and lesbian community center in Ferndale. The fact that it affects straight as well as gay couples, and that it will benefit kids, gives her hope that it might pass into law.

"We feel more confident about this one than other legislation proposed for LGBT issues," she says.

Things have gotten better for Davidson. She says she now has a new partner. The couple has been together for four years, first having a commitment ceremony in Ann Arbor and then a legal wedding in Toronto in 2004. Davidson underwent artificial insemination after finding a donor that physically resembled her partner. After giving birth to a girl in 2005, Davidson set up a legal will designating her partner as legal guardian in case of her own death. "We want to do anything legally possible to protect [our daughter's] relationship with my partner," Davidson says. "I don't ever want my partner or my daughter to experience what Jack experienced."

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to or call

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