Michigan's story of same sex adoption

Sep 30, 2013

If you’ve ever read Oliver Twist, or maybe even if you haven’t, you may remember the famous quote about a kink in the judicial system. “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot.” Dickens wrote those lines in another country 175 years ago. But things aren’t much different here and now, and as evidence, consider two nurses in suburban Detroit.

Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer are Michigan-certified foster parents, and the state is lucky to have them. DeBoer is a nurse in an NICU unit: Neonatal Intensive Care. Rowse, in an emergency room.

They indicated they were willing to foster the hardest cases, babies born premature, drug-addicted, who were either abandoned or taken away from the women who bore them.

Within a year, the state gave DeBoer and Rowse three of these babies. Some weren’t expected to survive. That was more than three years ago. Today, four-year-old Nolan and three year olds Ryanne and Jacob are thriving. It is never easy to find adoptive parents for such babies, but the two nurses have fallen in love with them, and early on, wanted to jointly adopt them all.

Everybody agrees they are superb parents. But the state would not let them adopt the kids, for one reason. They are a lesbian couple. In our state, married couples and single people can adopt. But nobody else.

To solve this, DeBoer adopted Ryanne and Rowse adopted Nolan and Jacob. The kids think of themselves as brothers and sisters. But there’s a big problem. If, say, Rowse got killed in a car accident, DeBoer would have no right to Jacob and Nolan. The state might very well take them away, destroying a family. Yes, the law can be an ass.

But that may be about to change. Two years ago, a lawyer named Dana Nessel got involved. DeBoer and Rowse live in a lower middle class suburb and are raising a houseful of special needs kids. They have little money. So Nessel took the case pro bono, and filed suit to overturn the adoption law in federal court. That was almost two years ago.

To her surprise, the judge, Bernard Friedman, suggested she challenge the state‘s ban on same-sex marriage as well. In March, Friedman said he would wait to rule till the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling this year in two same-sex cases. The high court then ruled in June that same-sex marriages could proceed in California, and that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits.

Friedman now will reconvene on October 16. Federal law always trumps state law, and Nessel is hoping the judge will rule both the anti-same sex marriage law and Michigan’s adoption law null and void.

Even if he does, she knows there will be long months of appeals. But the trend line seems clear. Nessel told me that Michigan is one of the most restrictive places in the nation, and said, “my dream is to live in a state as progressive as Kentucky.”

My guess is that Nessel will get her wish before too long, and know that she helped change history. When it comes to job satisfaction, what could be better than that?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.