Pa. Supreme Court OKs gay adoption

For almost four years, Pittsburgh attorney Christine Biancheria has argued that Pennsylvania’s adoption law leaves the issue of adoptions by gay and lesbian couples to the discretion of the courts. In an Aug. 20 ruling, the state’s highest court unanimously agreed.

“This is a resounding victory for gay families,” Biancheria told Out.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision lifted a two-year ban on so-called second-parent adoptions imposed by a November 2000 Superior Court ruling. In that ruling, which followed an appeal by Biancheria of two lower court rulings denying second-parent adoptions, the court concluded that because gay and lesbian couples in Pennsylvania cannot marry, the children they are raising cannot be adopted by the second parent. In order for the adoptions to be granted, the court reasoned, the legal parent in both cases would be required to relinquish his or her parental rights, according to a key provision of the Adoption Act.

The cases in question involved two Erie men and two women from Lancaster County. In her appeal before Superior Court, Biancheria argued that Section 2901 of the Adoption Act grants courts the discretion to decree the adoption without terminating the existing legal parent’s rights in cases where the adoption would serve the child’s best interests.

Second-parent adoptions have allowed a gay or lesbian partner of a biological or adoptive parent to secure full legal status as the child’s second parent, but laws governing second-parent adoption vary widely from state to state. Approximately 23 states and the District of Columbia permit second-parent adoptions. Prior to the 2000 Superior Court ruling, judges in 14 Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny

gheny County, had granted more than 100 second-parent adoptions to same-sex couples.

Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala, writing for the court, said, “There is no language in the Adoption Act precluding two unmarried same-sex (or unmarried heterosexual partners) from adopting a child who had no legal parents. It is therefore absurd to prohibit their adoptions merely because their children were either the biological or adopted children of one of the partners prior to the filing of the adoption petition.”

“The [Supreme] Court’s decision is very validating [for gays and lesbians],” said Biancheria. “It recognizes we’re out and that our families deserve protection too.”

Human rights groups across the state echoed Biancheria’s statements. “We can’t take our children’s basic human rights for granted,” said Susan Frietsche, staff attorney for the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project and counsel for 75 organizations supporting the adoptions at issue in the case. “I hope that every lesbian and gay parent, all their family members, and all their friends and neighbors will immediately pick up the phone or write a letter or e-mail to their state representative and state senator telling them that children in lesbian or gay families deserve all the benefits and protections that other children have.”

Those benefits and protections, say legal experts, include health insurance, Social Security benefits, inheritance rights and the right to child support from both parents.

In February, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for state laws that support the right of gay men and lesbians to adopt their partners’ children. The 55,000-member academy said adoptions by the same-sex partner of a legally recognized parent should be encouraged through “legislative and legal efforts.”

In May 2001, the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced Senate Bill 859, a general adoption reform bill that would make sweeping changes to the state’s adoption law and includes a provision that would allow adoptions by same-sex couples. A committee of the Joint State Government Commission has been studying Pennsylvania’s Adoption Act for three years with the expressed intent of removing obstacles to adoption.

The Supreme Court ruling, while groundbreaking, does not make second-parent adoptions automatic. Individuals seeking second-parent adoptions still must file a petition in their local court, where evidence must be heard so that a judge can determine whether the adoption is in the best interest of the child.

The cases of the Erie and Lancaster couples have been remanded to the lower courts for evidentiary hearings.

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