By Hannah Schoenbaum
Boston University Statehouse Program
OXFORD — After a tumultuous four-year adoption process, Oxford husbands Ken Peterson and Rick Rheault welcomed their daughter and two sons into what they call their “forever family.” But agencies could soon have the legal right to refuse adoption to LGBT parents such as Peterson and Rheault in states without strong anti-discrimination statutes.
The Trump administration proposed a rule on Friday that would allow adoption agencies to continue receiving taxpayer funding, even if they exclude LGBT families from their services because of religious beliefs. The rule would reverse a 2016 Obama-era regulation that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in adoption and foster care agencies.
Peterson, 53, and Rheault, 60, discussed their concerns about the proposed rule Monday as their eldest daughter, Amina, listened. Peterson recounted the scene in an interview the following day. Though he and his husband said they felt confident that Massachusetts would fight the federal policy, they worried for foster children and same-sex couples in other states.
Amina jumped into the conversation.
“If this happens, does that mean kids who are adopted by LGBT parents will have to leave?” the 12-year-old asked, fearing that she would be taken from her home.
The fathers were at a loss for words, Peterson told the Telegram & Gazette, describing the tears that welled in their daughter’s eyes as she imagined being thrown back into foster care, adding to the 1,948 days she and her brothers had already endured in the system.
After calming her down, the fathers explained how the proposed rule could pose challenges for other LGBT couples hoping to adopt.
“This wouldn’t change the adoption we have or our love and support for you,” Peterson assured his daughter. “We’re always going to be a family no matter what, but what this means is other LGBT people might not get the chance to have a family like ours.”
Though the Trump administration’s rule could override adoption laws in other states, Maria Mossaides, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said Massachusetts has one of the most extensive anti-discrimination statutes in the country.
Her office works to ensure that state agencies provide children like Amina and her brothers with necessary services during foster care and the adoption process.
“This is one of those classic conflicts of federalism between a state law that’s different than the standard of the federal law,” she said of the proposed rule. “The question then becomes whether the state law prevails, or does the federal government prevail in this instance?”
Under current state law, adoption agencies are expressly prohibited from discriminating against prospective parents based on their sexual orientation. Mossaides predicted Massachusetts officials will stand by that law.
While the federal government could withhold money from the state for failing to comply with the new rule, she said that outcome is unlikely.
“There was a decision made way before I became the child advocate that the commonwealth would not contract with any agency for adoption services that didn’t include a gender-inclusive policy,” Mossaides said. “That led to several faith-based organizations refusing their contracts.”
Veronica Listerud, the director of adoption and family services at Worcester adoption agency Children’s Friend, said she was required to sign the state’s anti-discrimination agreement when she accepted her job.
“All the other agencies in Worcester did the same,” she said. “Unless faith-based agencies who dropped out of the process because they couldn’t agree to LGBT adoptions come back in the picture, I don’t think the rule is going to have a big impact on Massachusetts.”
As of 2016, 21.4% of same-sex couples in the United States were raising adopted children, compared to just 3% of different-sex couples, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.
Listerud said the proposed rule would create barriers for one of the most willing populations of adoptive parents, which she thinks could cause a nationwide decline in adoptions.
“If LGBT couples couldn’t adopt, there would be far more kids than care,” Listerud said. “Right now, in Massachusetts, we have a shortage of homes, so to take that away would be detrimental.”
Peterson said he thinks LGBT couples possess a unique set of skills that allow them to meet the specific needs of adopted children.
“You’re taking kids from loss and trauma experiences and sometimes violence into your home,” he said. “For me, being gay, I’ve had my own life experiences of loss and trauma that I think have helped prepare me to understand things a little differently. I think I’ve had a preparation in life to do the work of parenting these kids.”
The concept of chosen family – a group of people who come together to form their own environment of love and support – is important in the LGBT community, Peterson said. He said he thinks this “stretched notion of family” can make it easier for LGBT people to love an adopted child.
Peterson also said he and Rheault have open conversations in their home about respecting different identities and have been proud to see their children advocate for others.
“I just think about these kids, how far ahead they’re going to be in their thinking,” Peterson said of the children raised by LGBT parents. “They’re going to be able to help other children understand and appreciate difference in a much better way.”
“If we shut that down and don’t have the opportunity of differences of family,” he said, “we’re never going to reach a place where we value this global community of wonderful individuals.”