Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"Because she was poor? Or because she was gay?"

by Kyle Michaelis
There was an excellent two-part story in the Omaha World-Herald the last two days that put a human face on the state of Nebraska's policy of discrimination against homosexuals in the placement of foster children, even to the point of shamelessly breaking-up actual families.

Brandon's Story - Part 1

Brandon's Story - Part 2

Now, this is no convenient, movie-of-the-week tale of an absolutely saintly woman's fighting for custody of her nephew, their remaining seperated only because of ignorant prejudice towards her for being a lesbian (though there's plenty of that).

No, this is real life where even the most loving of families has real problems. Regardless of the aunt's sexual orientation, there are circumstantial facts in this case that do raise questions about the environment in which Brandon would be raised - obvious family issues, hinted economic considerations, and the aunt's history of drunken driving convictions.

Still, the fact remains that this is the boy's family. This is the home in which his mother wants to see him raised. It is where his sister lives, as well as his twin baby brothers. Had he never gotten caught in "the system", this is where he would be growing-up. Even within "the system", there is no doubt this is where Brandon would have been placed by Health and Human Services were it not for their policy of homophobia here flying in the face of any possible conception of family values.

The World-Herald reports:
Nebraska is the only state with a policy preventing homosexuals from being licensed foster parents, according to the national gay rights organization Lambda Legal....

The policy was created after the issue was highlighted in the 1994 governor's race. Republican challenger Gene Spence expressed outrage that the state licensed homosexuals as foster parents. Then-Gov. Ben Nelson criticized Spence for "fear-mongering."

Democrat Nelson won by a landslide; but three months later, Spence's position prevailed.

Mary Dean Harvey, then the social services department's director, issued a memo barring unmarried, unrelated adults who live together from serving as foster parents....

The memo specifically addressed gay people: "Children will not be placed in the homes of persons who identify themselves as homosexuals"....

Harvey, who left the department that year, promised in the memo that public hearings would be held, but they never have been.

"It's been working effectively. There's really no reason to change it," HHS spokeswoman Jeanne Atkinson said of the policy.

The 1995 memo did include this exception:
It is current Department policy to encourage placement with relatives. Situations in which a relative placement is considered and the relative is known to the agency as being homosexual or is unmarried and living with another adult should be assessed by the worker on a case-by-case basis.

Family is family. There's nothing case-by-case about it. Where a child will be loved and cared for by his own kin, that is where he belongs.

That HHS' spokeswoman can look at this situation and claim this policy has been "working effectively" is ludicrous and insulting. Brandon has been forced into an unnecessary game of tug-of-war, parted from his siblings and an aunt that loves and has proven herself willing to fight for him.

Meanwhile, the foster parents who cared for him during this unjust seperation have seen their hopes raised - then dashed - and their hearts broken. This seemingly well-meaning (if perhaps over-zealous) couple simply never should have been involved in the first place.

All that pain and HHS can see no reason to change their policy? Their prejudice has, for two years, prevented the unification and hoped-for rehabilitation of this family. How has that served Brandon's interest? How has that reflected the people of Nebraska's spirit of compassion and social responsibility with which HHS has been entrusted?

This is appalling. It is bad enough that this poor child and those who care for him have suffered in the cracks of justice for nearly two years, but that the state has not even learned a lesson from this example - from its own failure, from its actually making a difficult situation worse rather than providing assistance - is a sad testament to the destructive politics of bigotry that linger and continue to corrupt our government at every level.

We are made less as a people and a state by such perversion of "the good life" that forgets and betrays the values that truly lie within our hearts - a goodness that transcends the political manipulation of religious doctrine, protecting families rather than seeing them sacrificed in the name of false piety.


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