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Opposition organizing against proposed ban on unmarried foster parents

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Family Council is still working on the wording of a proposed ballot initiative that would bar unmarried couples from adopting or becoming foster parents in the state, but opponents of the proposed ban are already gearing up for a fight.

“We are part of a growing coalition that includes social workers, pediatricians and psychologists who are going to join together in opposition to this initiative,” Rita Sklar, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview last week.

The Family Council hopes to place a measure on the 2008 general election ballot that, if approved by a majority of voters, would prohibit minors from being adopted or placed in foster homes with unmarried, cohabiting couples.

Sklar said the coalition opposing the measure will form officially at an organizational meeting this week.

“We’re going to try to educate the public through a series of town hall meetings, perhaps ads, mailing, other media, radio perhaps, to get people talking about the question of whether unmarried couples living together should be able to adopt or foster children in Arkansas.” she said. “So the first thing is education, making people aware of what’s being prepared for the ballot, hopefully discouraging them from signing any petition to put it on the ballot, and hopefully to discourage them from voting for it.”

Sklar said some funding for the campaign may come from out of state, though she declined to name any potential contributors.

Family Council President Jerry Cox said Friday he expected the proposal to encounter opposition. He noted that in 2004 a proposal to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, also supported by the Family Council, passed with 75 percent of the vote despite opposition from the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Just because we have opposition doesn’t mean that the measure won’t enjoy broad support from the rank and file across the state,” he said.

A bill that would have barred gays and unmarried couples from adopting or foster parenting passed earlier this year in the state Senate but died in a House committee, amid concerns about its constitutionality. The Family Council hopes for greater success with its ballot initiative, which would bar the state from placing children with any unmarried couple, whether of the same sex or opposite sexes.

Last week, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel rejected a version of the initiative that the Family Council submitted for certification, citing problems with the wording. Cox said the conservative group expects to submit a revised version sometime this week.

If the measure is certified, the Family Council will need to collect signatures of 61,974 registered voters to place it on the ballot.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics will be part of the coalition opposing the measure, according to Dr. Eddie Ochoa, chapter president.

“Our major concern, as it was when Senate Bill 959 was being debated, is it would restrict the number of foster and adoptive homes that DHS desperately needs,” Ochoa said.

Robbie Thomas-Knight, director of professional affairs for the Arkansas Psychological Association, said the association will wait until it sees the final version of the proposal before taking a position, but if the measure is similar to Senate Bill 959, the association will oppose it.

“The legislation just doesn’t allow for any case-by-case judgment about what’s best for the child,” Thomas-Knight said. “And we don’t want to see children languishing when there are good homes.”

Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said the organization’s board of directors will discuss the ballot initiative at a meeting this week.

“We have in the past adopted a broader general position statement opposing bans such as these because we think they generally run against the best interest of kids. The child welfare system is a system that already has too few parents,” Huddleston said.

The state Department of Human Services has a goal of finding 80 new foster homes each quarter, but it only placed children in about half that number of foster homes in the last quarter, DHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell said Friday.

During the same period, out of 330 children who were available for adoption, 77 were placed in adoptive homes, she said.

“It is an area that we constantly struggle with,” Munsell said.

Cox said he did not believe the measure would deprive children of good homes.

“As I understand it, right now DHS is not placing children in homes with cohabiting individuals. If that’s true, then this, as far as foster homes, would not change anything,” he said.

Munsell said DHS does follow a policy, set by the Child Welfare Licensing Review Board, of not placing children in foster homes with unmarried couples. But it is only a policy, not state law, and it does not apply to adoption.

The ACLU believes the ban would be unconstitutional.

“We’ll be able to show that there is absolutely no rational basis,” Sklar said. “There is no reason behind the ban that has anything to do with the welfare of the children.”

Cox said the Family Council believes children, especially those who are in foster care because of abuse, need the stability of a home with married parents.

“I think it’s incumbent on the state of Arkansas, if it’s going to create families, to create the best families possible,” he said.

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