First I gave birth to my son. Then, after background checks, social worker visits, court dates, and $7,000 in costs, a judge made legal what my wife and I already knew: that we were his parents.
Our son was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor who never intended to be any part of his life. Even though my wife and I were married before our son was born, and planned the journey to parenthood together fully, the only document that would grant my wife full parental rights was a so-called second-parent adoption decree. And where we live, getting one is a lengthy, complicated, and expensive process, even in the best of circumstances.
We don’t live in a state known for its hostility to LGBTQ rights. We live in New York, whose outdated laws around legal parentage lag behind otherwise conservative states like Texas, Alabama, and Florida.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently called on state lawmakers to pass a bill that would bring New York’s laws into the 21st century. Plenty of attention has been paid to aspects of the bill that would legalize surrogacy — yes, it’s somehow still not legal in New York — but there has been less coverage of what is perhaps the bill’s most significant and far-reaching change. It would update New York’s second-parent adoption laws to meet today’s family dynamics and offer a critically needed layer of protection to LGBTQ families like ours.
In states like California, the second-parent adoption process consists of a one-page downloadable form and a $10 fee. New York’s laws are draconian and more invasive, expensive, and cumbersome than those of most other states. The process can take nearly a year, sometimes longer, and is cost prohibitive to many. There are lawyer’s fees that average $5,000, court fees, and a required social worker visit that can cost upward of $1,500. There are days lost from work to attend lawyer meetings and court dates. Families must be subjected to a social worker home visit that takes hours and consists of invasive questioning about everything from how you were raised to your parenting style. (Did we have one? Our baby was 3 months old at the time.)
Then come the nail-biting days until you receive the pages-long home study where a stranger — who may or may not be a parent themselves — determines whether you are fit to parent the child you’re already raising.
This outdated and unnecessary process leaves already vulnerable families even more exposed to legal uncertainty. Cases abound of parents who divorce, only to be deemed legal strangers to their own kids because they are lacking the adoption papers.
The second-parent adoption process also can’t be initiated under current New York law until after the child is born. That leaves families with newborn babies in legal limbo, which can become incredibly stressful if there are critical medical decisions that need to be made or if the baby needs to go on the non–biological parent’s health insurance.
There’s enough to worry about when you have a newborn; legal uncertainty shouldn’t be on the list.
This pending bill, sponsored by New York’s only out state senator, Brad Hoylman, would remove legal hurdles faced by an increasing number of LGBTQ families and would be especially helpful to families already living in challenging social and economic situations. If the bill were passed, the current burdensome and expensive process would be replaced by a single visit to a court, where a judge could deem legal parentage. And that visit could happen when the child was still in utero, meaning that both intended parents could have legal rights from the minute their child was born.
It’s a right that that most new parents take for granted, and extending it to LGBTQ families would be a welcome development in this uncertain and threatening federal political climate. These days, anything feels possible, including the overturning of same-sex marriage, and polls show that support for LGBTQ people has been backsliding for the first time since marriage equality passed.
The Trump administration has already revoked LGBTQ employee protections, given license to health care facilities to deny care to patients, allowed foster care and adoption agencies to reject same-sex households, proposed kicking transgender people out of homeless shelters and out of the military, and positioned the Supreme Court to its most conservative configuration in decades, with talk of reversing Roe v. Wade on the horizon. The devastating loss of marriage equality might not be far behind.
Regardless, a court-stamped adoption paper is the only recognized document globally, particularly in countries that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.
New York ought to pass this bill to provide the most secure layer of protections for LGBTQ families. It would be the best gift lawmakers could bestow on us as we enter Pride Month and honor 50 years since the Stonewall riots and the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement. This is the natural next step, and here is no excuse for delay.