Anne Shelley and Robin Ross are unwinding after a jam-packed day of ferrying 4-year-old daughter Eva Mae from preschool to ice skating lessons to speech therapy.
“It’s pretty much your mundane American family,” said Shelley, 46, over a dinner of barbecue at their home near the Ozark Mountains.
But not everyone sees their domestic situation that way.
Arkansas residents recently voted to ban anyone “co-habitating outside of a valid marriage” from being foster parents or adopting children, as did Shelley and Ross, 52.
Child welfare experts say that the initiative was ostensibly written to prohibit any unmarried couples from adopting or becoming foster parents, but that the measure’s real objective is to bar same-sex couples from raising children -- even if it means that youths in need of homes have to wait longer.
“We don’t have enough quality homes as it is, and now we’re going to place more restrictions?” asked Susan Hoffpauir, president of the Arkansas Chapter of the National Assn. of Social Workers. “A lot of us are still shell-shocked by this.”
Although the battle over California’s gay marriage ban which passed last month, has grabbed headlines, it is same-sex parenting that is heating up as the next skirmish in the nation’s culture wars. Last week, a Florida judge struck down that state’s decades-old law preventing gays and lesbians from adopting.
Florida had been the only state with a law specifically disallowing adoption by gays, although they were allowed to be foster parents. In Utah, only heterosexual, married couples can adopt. North Dakota law permits adoption agencies to rule out prospective parents based on religious or moral objection.
Conversely, in Illinois, prospective foster and adoptive parents can be single or married, and the state Department of Children and Family Services cannot use sexual orientation as a basis for exclusion.
Still, many Americans are opposed to placing children in gay households, and social conservatives hope the issue will rally voters in the same way that same-sex marriage brought them to the polls on Nov. 4.
In Arkansas, roughly 3,700 children are in state custody -- taken from their homes because of abuse or neglect. Of those, 960 kids, whose average age is 8 1/2 , are immediately available for adoption, said Julie Munsell of the state Department of Human Services. And of the 1,100 foster homes, one-third are headed by single adults.
But beyond the state system, the ban set to take effect Jan. 1 will thwart private adoptions of children like Eva Mae, left at the door of a Vietnamese orphanage with nothing but a yellow blanket and disfigured upper lip. Moreover, the new law could jeopardize a wide range of nontraditional living arrangements such as co-habitating grandparents raising grandchildren, opponents say.
Such scenarios are a “smoke screen,” said John Thomas, vice president of Family Council, a conservative group in Arkansas that pushed to get the initiative on the ballot after it had failed several times in the legislature. The real issue, he said, is that the state has to set the bar higher when it comes to finding homes for children.
“I understand that there is a lack of homes, but I refuse to believe that the choice is between a horrible situation and a so-so situation,” Thomas said. Family Council took its message directly to churches, where it spoke out against “the gay agenda.”
Finding potential homes for foster children is a challenge in the U.S. -- especially for youths who are older or have special needs. Some 129,000 children are in foster care nationwide, said Adam Pertman, executive director of Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the only criteria should be who can best provide a loving, permanent home.
The New York-based, nonpartisan group concluded in a recent report that a national ban on gay adoptions could add $87 million to $130 million to foster care expenditures annually because more children would be living in other types of institutional care, such as group homes.
“On its face, this [Arkansas] law is just crazy,” Pertman said. “I fear what will happen if other states see this as a model.”
Social conservatives say the state could alleviate the shortage of foster and adoptive parents by stepping up efforts to recruit better candidates. “We have the opportunity to create the very best families,” Thomas said. “That’s what we should be aiming for.”
Still, a broad coalition of child advocacy organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, decried the ban, as did Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and former President Clinton. Polls also predicted its defeat.
So on election night, Shelley and Ross -- who have been together for nine years -- were cautiously optimistic as they watched the returns. Then, they were stunned: The measure passed in all but two counties.
“Do I believe that most people in this state hate me and my child? No,” said Ross, a psychiatrist. “Do I believe that the Christian right is more organized here? Yes.”
Eva Mae is on the floor of the living room, intently working a puzzle and oblivious to all the adult anxiety. The little girl pops up, asking for yogurt. Shelley gently reminds her to use the magic word.
The two women traveled to Vietnam in 2007, returning with a lethargic 2-year-old who, because of a cleft lip and palate, could not swallow or talk.
Eva Mae endured several surgeries -- and though her speech is still difficult to understand, she has all but caught up to her peers in other developmental areas.
“She is very smart,” said Shelley, a former community organizer turned stay-at-home mom.
The American Civil Liberties Union is considering a legal challenge to the ban. But people are afraid to bring attention to their families, said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas. (Shelley and Ross were willing to go public only because Eva Mae’s adoption is final.)
Thomas of Family Council said his group remained confident the ban would not be overturned.
“We took great care in writing this in such a way that it could withstand any kind of challenge,” he said.
After months of heated debate that didn’t end with the election, Munsell of the Department of Children and Family Services in Arkansas said the upside of the battle is that citizens are acutely aware of the need for adoption.
“The question,” she said, “is now where will those families come?”