Baltimore court is a magnet for same-sex parents

Other Maryland circuit courts are a gamble for gays trying to adopt

  • Kelly McCoy and Cynthia Dennis play a game with their newly-adopted son James McCoy-Dennis.
Kelly McCoy and Cynthia Dennis play a game with their newly-adopted… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
November 12, 2011|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

The rows of wooden benches were filled with seven families for adoption day in Baltimore City Circuit Court last month.

A pair of gay men seeking to adopt a baby. Three lesbian couples, two with twins. Two single moms with two kids between them.

And one heterosexual couple — the only nuclear family with a mother and father — who had filed to adopt a young boy.

Most adoption days in Baltimore look like this. The city is the favored jurisdiction among Maryland's 24 circuit courts for same-sex adoption petitioners because of a legal precedent written 15 years ago and because of local procedures that allow all Maryland residents — regardless of which county they call home — to file adoption paperwork in the city.

Maryland's adoption statute is silent on same-sex parents, leaving the matter to the discretion of each circuit judge. Baltimore, according to adoption lawyers, appears to be the only jurisdiction where judges have agreed to treat homosexual couples the same way they treat straight couples. Other jurisdictions, attorneys say, are a gamble for would-be parents who are gay.

So even as more circuit courts become willing to grant adoptions to same-sex couples — at least seven other counties have done so — lawyers who specialize in representing gay families nearly always tell their clients to file in Baltimore, steering them away from their home counties if judges there are known to turn down adoption applications or if the judicial waters are untested.

"Baltimore City is the preferred venue just because you don't know what you're going to get in Baltimore County," said attorney Mark Scurti, who waited in the courtroom on the morning of adoption day last month. His clients, Cynthia Dennis and Kelly McCoy of Parkville, were jointly adopting a 14-month-old boy named Jamie.

Couples like Dennis and McCoy are reshaping the cultural and legal definition of the American family. About 12,500 same-sex couples live in Maryland, and about one in five have children, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

But while the topic of civil rights for gay couples ignites heated and emotional debates — in Maryland, where the General Assembly is expected to take up same-sex marriage again next year; and in Florida, where an appeals court struck down a ban on gay adoptions last year — the Baltimore court's policies have largely gone unnoticed and unquestioned.

When the issue has been raised elsewhere, conservative groups have decried what they call judicial activism, contending that children should be raised in families with a mother and father.

"The best choice is a family structure that provides the closest parallel to their own parents, and that would be a married couple, not a same-sex couple," said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for CitizenLink, the policy arm of the Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family.

Janice Crouse of Laurel, a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for the socially conservative organization Concerned Women for America, agreed. "We don't want to use our children as guinea pigs by arbitrarily … placing them in homes with two moms or two dads."

But gay and lesbian advocates point to support from the medical community. The American Psychological Association disputes the claim that children are more successful when raised by heterosexual parents. The American Medical Association also supports adoption by same-sex couples.

In Baltimore's family court, no one raised objections during last month's adoption day, which had a celebratory atmosphere.

"It didn't register," said Silver Spring resident Patricia Gbeti, referring to the fact that six of the nine children in court that day were being adopted by gay families. Gbeti adopted an 18-month-old from Central Africa, Carolyne, who was dressed in taffeta and bows for the big day.

"Family composition doesn't matter as long as the child can find a home," said Gbeti, who grew up in an adoptive home in France and plans to raise her daughter alone. "Whether one mom and one dad or something else, it doesn't matter."

A history of acceptance

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow adoption by same-sex couples because of appellate court decisions or statutes, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Maryland is among about a dozen additional states where at least one county has granted adoptions to same-sex couples, the group found. Confidentiality in adoption cases makes it difficult to get a definitive count.

Six states ban or restrict adoptions by same-sex couples.

Baltimore has a recorded history of adoption by gay and lesbian couples that dates to 1996, when a written opinion on the matter was issued.

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