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Judge's Ruling Reopens Debate On Gay Adoption Ban

TAMPA - A South Florida judge's ruling that Florida's ban on gay adoption is unconstitutional could help convince legislators it's time to change an antiquated law, gay advocates say. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge David J. Audlin ruled Wednesday that the state's 31-year-old ban is unconstitutional because it singles out a group for punishment. The Key West case involves a 13-year-old boy with learning disabilities and special needs whose 52-year-old foster dad wanted to adopt him. A social worker highly recommended the dad and his partner for the adoption, but state law forbids that. "Contrary to every child welfare principle, the gay adoption ban operates as a conclusive or irrebuttable presumption that ... it is never in the best interest of any adoptee to be adopted by a homosexual," Audlin wrote in his ruling.
Circuit judges in Florida have twice before found the statute unconstitutional, both in 1991, though the challenges stalled at the appellate level. A similar case is expected to be heard in Miami next month. "These cases are different from prior court cases because the science wasn't in the record," said Karen Doering, a civil rights lawyer in St. Petersburg. Prominent studies are finding there is no harm to children who are raised by gay and lesbian parents, she said. Children do better with two parents, but they don't necessarily have to be a mom and a dad, she said. "Every reputable child welfare organization in the country opposes these bans," Doering added. Nick Cox, regional director of the Florida Department of Children & Families, said his agency only follows what the law commands. "We obviously can't do anything about it," he said of the ban. "We keep trying to place children in good safe homes." Florida has 3,307 children available for adoption; about 75 percent have identified homes, DCF spokeswoman Sarrah Troncoso said. That leaves about 1,000 children in need of adoptive families, she said. In Hillsborough County, 654 children "need safe, loving, nurturing families to grow up in," said Jeff Rainey, chief executive officer of Hillsborough Kids Inc., which oversees local adoptions for the state. Florida's law is the only one in the nation explicitly excluding gay men and women from adopting. Utah allows only married couples to adopt and the state doesn't recognize gay marriages. Mississippi bans adoptions by couples of the same gender, but not by gay individuals. Despite the ban, Florida welcomes gays to become foster parents and at least one local couple was allowed to go a step further. Curtis Watson and his partner of Seminole won long-term custody of two foster girls in 2004. Pinellas County Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan thanked the couple and told the state it owed them a debt of gratitude for the way they cared for the girls, who had been severely abused. "It was one step shy" of what the Monroe County judge did, said Watson's attorney, Deborah Eldridge of St. Petersburg. "I'm very excited," she said of Wednesday's ruling. "Obviously it's going to be appealed ... but it's really a matter of time" before the ban on gay adoptions is overturned. Today, Watson's daughters are 9 and 10 years old and thriving, said the mental health provider who works with foster children. "They're growing up, going to school, making friends," he said. "It's been a very good life." He looked at the recent ruling as yet another chance at breaking the barrier. "Of course, any step we can take lifting the ban is the step in the right direction," he said. Although he would love to adopt the girls, "we're a family, regardless." Not everyone revels in the ruling. "It's unfortunate you get a rogue judge who wants to legislate from the bench," said David Caton of the Florida Family Association, a Tampa-based group that strives to improve America's moral environment. Florida is not the only state that considers same sex couples inappropriate, he said. Other states may not have statutes on the subject, but they have regulations that make it difficult or impossible for gays to adopt children. Gays are "pushing for acceptance of their lifestyle and using the court for that," Caton said. "It's unfortunate that children are caught up in the middle."

Information from The Associated Press and Tribune Researcher Melanie Coon were used in this report. Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144 or [email protected]

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