WLP Celebrates the 10 Year Anniversary of Second-Parent Adoption in Pennsylvania

From WLP Staff

Join the Women’s Law Project on Saturday, August 18th from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh (Shadyside), 605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA  for a potluck picnic celebration featuring food, fun and a chance to share what family means to you. Come enjoy a moon bounce, games (with fantastic prizes!), delicious burgers/veggie burgers, Rita’s Italian Ice and family photos. Register for Event!

August 20, 2012 marks the ten-year anniversary of the recognition of second-parent adoption in Pennsylvania, the result of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002).  The Women’s Law Project (WLP) has particular cause to celebrate because of the pivotal role it played in helping same-sex parents each gain the right, through adoption, to have legally secure relationships with the children they nurture and love.

Before second-parent adoption was legalized across Pennsylvania, same-sex couples faced many obstacles in creating and protecting their families.  Women who had given birth to children in heterosexual marriages prior to entering same-sex relationships often had to fight to gain even partial custody of their children.  In fact, the courts were reluctant to recognize one, let alone two, gay or lesbian parents as legally fit.  Regardless of how same-sex couples became parents, they faced a major challenge:  only one partner in a same-sex couple could legally be “the” parent to a particular child.  While it might look as though the child had two mommies or two daddies, technically, only one partner was the official and legal parent.  This forced partners who were co-parents to choose between them who would play this role and have all the rights and obligations attendant on it.  This is a wrenching and divisive experience for even the most stable couples.

Educated, financially secure couples knew enough and had the resources to pursue legal “work-arounds” such as powers of attorney, advance directives, and other artificial surrogates for full parental rights.  In the absence of these cumbersome and costly measures, the non-legal parent could be excluded from making important decisions about the child’s life—such as approving medical care for the child—or even from just picking the child up from daycare or school.  Furthermore, if the partners separated, the non-legal parent could easily be denied visitation with the child and could not be made to pay child support.  If the non-legal parent were to die, the children would not be entitled to receive social security survivor benefits.  If the deceased parent had had the wherewithal to make a will, the children (and the surviving partner, without benefit of marriage) would be still required to pay much higher Pennsylvania inheritance taxes reserved for legal strangers; without a will, the partner and children would receive nothing.

Creating a family when the law did not consider same-sex parents with children as a natural or normal family was so complex a prospect that it required a handbook, a need filled in 1992 by Dabney Miller, longtime Associate Director of the Women’s Law Project, social worker, and adoptive parent, who, assisted by local adoption counselor Abby Ruder, wrote exactly that—a handbook on the rights of lesbian and gay parents in Pennsylvania to help couples negotiate the legal hurdles they faced.  This handbook became an invaluable resource for both parents and advocates, and led to the formation of a working group of lawyers, parents, advocates, and social workers who focused exclusively on making second-parent adoption a reality in Pennsylvania.

Miller recalls that, as the working group at the WLP began to ramp up, “a judge in York County granted a second-parent adoption, pretty quietly, no fanfare but not privately, not secretively.”  Encouraged by this development, members of the WLP’s working group began applying for second-parent adoptions in Philadelphia County and succeeded.  But not all counties in the state were open to this option.  When two families whose petitions for second-parent adoption were denied in other counties decided to appeal, the WLP and working group members stepped in again.  The WLP and the Support Center for Child Advocates provided support in the form of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, garnering support from children’s and women’s rights groups, attorneys and bar associations, religious organizations, day care and social service providers, and adoption agencies.  This creative collaboration paid off in August 2002 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002), holding that second-parent adoption is indeed permissible under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, thus making it available in all counties in the state.

Despite this dramatic success, much remains to be done.  Lesbian and gay couples must be educated about the importance of securing second-parent adoption, and they must be able to afford an attorney to guide them through the process.  Though second-parent adoption is now legal across the commonwealth, there is no uniform process for handling these cases county to county.  Furthermore, second-parent adoption is not legal in every U.S. state, and adoptions recognized here many times will not be recognized elsewhere.  See videos and keep abreast of developments on this subject through the WLP website at www.womenslawproject.org.

About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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