Lesbian Couple Adoption Approved By Miami Court

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With the blessing of her large extended family, Vanessa Alenier took custody of an infant relative who had been seized by child welfare workers. She moved him into a yellow nursery with a blond wood crib, a blue-striped carpet and a mobile.

When she asked the state to for permission to adopt him, the application included a simple question.

Are you gay?

Alenier, 34, said she did not want to begin her journey as a parent with a lie. So she told the truth -- despite Florida's 33-year-old law banning gay men and lesbians from adopting.

Earlier this month -- as a Miami appeals court determines the constitutionality of the embattled adoption ban -- a judge quietly approved the 1-year-old's adoption. The decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia is the third finalized adoption by a gay couple within the last year.

While the 1977 law remains in limbo, Sampedro-Iglesia's ruling suggests some state court judges already have made up their minds about gay adoption, a thorny political issue in a state with a significant social conservative streak.

CHILD 'THRIVING'

"There is no rational connection between sexual orientation and what is or is not in the best interest of a child,'' Sampedro-Iglesia wrote in her order, obtained by The Miami Herald. "The child is happy and thriving with [Alenier]. The only way to give this child permanency … is to allow him to be adopted'' by her.

In her ruling, Sampedro-Iglesia declared Florida's adoption law "unconstitutional on its face.''

For Alenier, who shares a home near downtown Hollywood with her longtime partner, Melanie Leon, the ruling made formal what she already knew she had -- a family.

"We knew we wanted to be parents, both of us,'' Alenier said. The infant "was a family member. We couldn't say no. We strongly wanted to be a family.

"It's the most amazing thing that ever happened to us,'' Alenier said. "It's changed our lives.''

Florida Department of Children & Families administrators, who objected to the adoption, have not yet decided whether they will appeal.

"We are currently reviewing the judge's decision and will make a decision on an appeal within the 30-day period,'' agency spokesman Joe Follick said.

Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, called Sampedro-Iglesia's ruling "evidence of judicial activism'' that violates state law.

"A judge is not a legislature onto oneself,'' Staver said. "Judges don't have the ability to write laws any way they desire. They have to follow the rule of law, and this judge did not.''

But Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at the Harvard University Law School, said the judge's action shows she was "taking seriously [her] oath to the supreme law of the land, the Constitution of the United States.''

"A judge must put his or her duty to the U.S. Constitution above any to obey a clearly unconstitutional law,'' Tribe said.

A judge in Key West, Monroe Circuit Judge David J. Audlin, struck the first blow to the statute on Aug. 29, 2008, when he signed a 67-page order declaring the law unconstitutional. Audlin's order cleared the way for a Key West lawyer, Wayne LaRue Smith, to adopt a boy he had been raising in foster care.

Neither DCF not Attorney General Bill McCollum appealed Audlin's ruling. Because the youngster already had been moved from foster care to a permanent guardianship at the time of adoption, they said, they no longer had jurisdiction over his case.

A month later, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman approved the adoption of two half brothers by a North Miami foster parent, Frank Martin Gill, who declared on his adoption application that he, too, is gay. DCF did appeal Lederman's ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami-Dade. That appeal is still under review.

The little boy who is the subject of Sampedro-Iglesia's order was born on Jan. 14, 2009, and was sheltered by DCF investigators almost immediately. Alenier said she received a fateful phone call within a day of his birth from an aunt. The aunt had gone to Bible study that day, and had prayed with friends over what to do.

"When she left Bible study, she called me and told me a baby boy had been born,'' Alenier said. "Of course, it was very scary getting the phone call, not knowing how our lives would change,'' said Alenier said.

The boy was released from the hospital after nine days, and Alenier and Leon never looked back.

Both women said they never considered anything but telling the truth; they identified themselves as lesbians at their first meeting with DCF.

"I have had clients say they didn't want the first lesson I taught [the child] to be that it's OK to lie,'' said Elizabeth F. Schwartz, one of the couple's two lawyers.

Alenier and Leon -- who have never been active in politics or social movements -- said they prepared themselves for a fight, knowing that it would be worth it if it ended with the three becoming a family.

'A STRUGGLE'

"We knew it would be very hard to adopt him, and it has been a hard struggle,'' said Leon, 31.

Alan Mishael, one of the couple's lawyers, said the state had dragged its feet for months, trying to "run down the clock'' while the Miami appeals court reviewed the law. "They wanted to sweep the problem under the rug,'' Mishael said.

"Children are entitled to permanence,'' Mishael added. "Children cannot wait around like an item on a shelf.''

To push the adoption forward, Alenier and Leon paid for a private home study and encouraged Sampedro-Iglesia to set the case for trial quickly. Because both state and federal law place a premium on finding permanent homes for foster children as quickly as possible, the judge agreed.

At the trial, held earlier this month, DCF presented no witnesses and offered no testimony.

The state's case: Adoption by gay people is illegal in Florida.

But in her order, Sampedro-Iglesia wrote the law could not be enforced.

"The permanent interests and benefit to all members of the adoptive household will be promoted by the adoption,'' Sampedro-Iglesia wrote. "[Alenier] is a fit and proper person to adopt the child and has adequate resources and facilities to care for the child.''

 


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