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Deadlocked vote in Senate panel dooms gay-adoptions legislation

RICHMOND—A bill to allow second-parent adoption failed to pass on a tied vote in a Senate committee Friday morning.

The bill would have let the non-birth parent in an unmarried couple—straight or gay—adopt the couple’s child, or allow both people in an unmarried couple to adopt a child.

In Virginia, only single people and married couples can adopt children. Unmarried couples—straight or gay—cannot.

While the law applies to both gay and straight unmarried couples, debate over it tends to focus on same-sex couples, who can’t legally marry in Virginia.

One member of those couples can adopt a child, or give birth to one, but the other parent has no legal rights, said Sen. Janet Howell, D–Fairfax, the bill’s sponsor. That means the child can’t be covered by the unrecognized parent’s insurance, can’t access both parents’ Social Security benefits if one dies, both parents can’t make key medical decisions, and so on.

Howell said her bill would just let courts recognize that a child has two parents.

Marti Tomlin and Fera Allen of Richmond held up a picture of their twin infant boys dressed in sailor suits while they told the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services committee how Fera, who is not the birth mother, has fewer legal rights over the children even though she loves and mothers them just as Tomlin does.

“Fera changes poopy diapers, Fera snuggles sleepy babies,” Tomlin said. “She does not deserve to not be listed on their birth certificate …She should not have to worry that should one day something happen to me, someone could take her children away, or that if one day something happened to her, someone could take her pension from her children.”

Allen, a Chesterfield teacher, said she couldn’t take family leave time when the twins were born, because she wasn’t legally a parent.

“My students that are parents have more rights than I do. I cannot legally talk to teachers, attend conferences or even get an account online to monitor their grades as the law now stands,” Allen said.

She said she’s vested in the state’s employee retirement system.

“If something were to happen to me, Knox and Logan would not get a penny, because the commonwealth does not think of me as a parent,” Allen said.

The Family Foundation and the Virginia Catholic Conference opposed the bill, saying it was too broad in defining the relationships of people who could be second adoptive parents.

“This is a sea change in policy in the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Family Foundation representative Chris Freund. “To this point adoption has been reserved to married couples and to single adults.”

He said the bill would open the door to adoption for unmarried straight people who are living together—a group whose relationships, Freund said, are “notoriously unstable.”

Ashley Apple, a Richmond resident who has one child with her wife—they married in Washington D.C., where it’s legal—had a solution to that.

“If they’re concerned about cohabitating unmarried couples, they could open up marriage to us,” she said.

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, director of Virginia’s American Civil Liberties Union, said later that the focus on the relationships between parents is missing the point. The point, she said, is to focus on the relationships of those parents with the child.

Nevertheless, concerns about the bill’s breadth stopped it in its tracks Friday, with senators on the committee unable to break a tie vote both to kill it and then to pass it. It will remain in committee while Howell tries to come up with amendments that might narrow its definitions and win it more friends.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245


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