THE COURTS

Arguments air in Miami-Dade gay-adoption case

 

Vanessa Alenier and her partner, Melanie Leon, are fighting to raise an infant relative seized by state child welfare administrators.

Special to The Miami Herald

Vanessa Alenier's fight to raise an infant relative seized by state child welfare administrators ended up Wednesday exactly where she had hoped it wouldn't: in a Florida courtroom filled with lawyers and advocates on both sides of the state's politically charged gay-adoption law.

Alenier, who accepted custody of her relative after the state Department of Children & Families seized him from a mother they declared unfit, had hoped her adoption of the boy would occur quietly and without the political spectacle that had surrounded previous adoptions by gay Floridians. But on Wednesday morning, Alenier and her partner, Melanie Leon, sat quietly as a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal heard arguments by attorneys on both sides.

``This isn't what we wanted,'' Alenier said following the hearing. ``We just wanted a quiet adoption.''

Alenier took custody of the baby boy just days after he was born on Jan. 9 2009. She fostered the child before requesting an adoption -- which Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia approved last January.

Since 1977, Florida has allowed gay men and lesbians to foster abused and neglected children -- but specifically forbids them from adopting. The law now is facing its most serious challenge in decades, as three South Florida judges have declared it unconstitutional and approved adoptions by gay families.

The three-judge panel -- Judges Juan Ramirez, Jr., Gerald B. Cope, Jr. and Leslie B. Rothenberg -- is not expected to render a decision immediately. A prior adoption by a gay couple from Miami-Dade already has been pending before the appeals court for more than a year.

As Ronald Lathan, representing the Department of Children & Families, argued that the appeal court had no choice but to overturn the adoption, Ramirez questioned the validity of the statute, suggesting it discriminates against gay people.

`HAS THE RIGHT'

``If the Legislature wanted to prohibit blind people from adopting, you would defend that too,?'' Ramirez asked.

``The state has the right -- as does the department -- to articulate criteria and eligibility standards for adoption,'' Lathan said. ``The primary concern [here] is the best interest of the children.''

Rothenberg suggested that, when the law was passed about 33 years ago, ``there was a misconception at the time that homosexuals would abuse children. We've progressed since that time -- thankfully,'' she added.

Alenier's attorney, Alan Mishael, argued that allowing his clients to keep custody of the little boy -- who knows no other parents -- is in the child's best interest.

``Wholesome environments is not a synonym for straight,'' Mishael said.

The challenges to Florida's 1977 adoption law began in August 2008, when Monroe Circuit Judge David J. Audlin struck down the statute, declaring it unconstitutional in a 67-page order. Audlin's ruling cleared the way for a Key West lawyer, Wayne LaRue Smith, to adopt a boy he had been raising in foster care.

The Key West adoption never was challenged. Both DCF and Attorney General Bill McCollum declined to appeal the order, saying they had no jurisdiction since Smith's son already had been in a permanent guardianship at the time of the adoption, rendering DCF a non-party to the adoption.

ADOPTION APPROVED

But 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, like Alenier, declared on his adoption application that he, too, is gay. DCF appealed Lederman's ruling to the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami-Dade -- where the case is pending.

Joe Follick, a spokesman for DCF in Tallahassee, said Wednesday afternoon the agency had no choice but to defend the law, regardless of whether or not it enjoys widespread support.

``As an executive agency, the department is bound by Florida statute to defend the law. Until there is unified appellate court decision on this issue, we will continue to adhere to the laws enacted by the Legislature.''

Alenier said she believes state officials are simply making political hay out of the law -- and the adoption of needy children.

``The state,'' she said, ``is using the situation to their advantage.''

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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