Suffer the Little Children

Reality Bites

On the face of it, Texas is in a crisis where abused and neglected children are concerned, with growing numbers of kids in need of Child Protective Services (CPS) intervention. In January, the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (DPRS) -- the umbrella agency that houses CPS -- reported a sharp increase last year in the number of child deaths resulting from abuse. And last October, District Court Judge Scott McCown delivered a petition to Gov. Bush and the 76th Legislature that depicted an underpaid, understaffed, and overwhelmed CPS.

"When Texas is compared to the nation," McCown wrote, "the results are astounding." CPS workers in Texas are stretched so thin, he wrote, that the average caseload is 23.7 cases per worker -- nearly double what the Child Welfare League of America recommends -- a dismal fact that renders the employees helpless in their efforts to intervene in every instance of abuse or neglect. What's more, Texas is experiencing a declining number of people willing to serve as foster or adoptive parents.

"We are overburdened," says Marla Sheeley, a DPRS spokesperson. "And we're talking about kids placed in state care because they come from abusive and neglectful homes. They need the best, loving, nurturing home, and the pool is not that big to begin with." The overriding sentiment of DPRS is that the bills are hurtful in that any action which would limit the total possible pool of parents is a grave mistake.

"Gay and lesbian parents aside, it doesn't matter," says Belinda Hare, the CPS adoption coordinator for Region Seven. "We are looking for the most appropriate, willing, and able parents to provide for these children." Unfortunately, says Hare, there's only a small number of possible parents willing to provide for abused children, who tend to be older, with special physical and emotional needs.

"It's a whole different child population, and as much as we do to educate people [such as Chisum and Talton], they still think like this: 'These are healthy blue-eyed babies and there are tons of people who want to adopt them'," says Hare.


Seeds Planted in '97

Truth be told, it was not the recent attention placed on CPS' burgeoning caseload that motivated Chisum to author his bill. Instead, it was the ongoing litigious incident involving Rebecca Bledsoe, a former supervisor at the DPRS office in Dallas, who in August of 1997 yanked a child out of a foster home after discovering that the foster parents were lesbians.

Instead of following DPRS procedure, Bledsoe conducted an emergency intervention -- an action reserved for times when a child's life is in imminent danger. Bledsoe, who was demoted as a result of her judgment, filed suit against DPRS, seeking reinstatement of her job as well as a permanent injunction that would prohibit CPS from placing children with homosexual families.

Did Bledsoe serve as the impetus for the proposed legislation? "Absolutely," Chisum confirms. "I had no idea this agency was doing this [placing children in gay- and lesbian-headed households]. This was a surprise; I don't know anyone who says we've known this was going on all the time." DPRS spokeswoman Sheeley, however, says that it has never been agency policy to screen based on sexual orientation: "We screen [prospective parents] based on the needs of the children."

Picture of Representative Debra Danburg

"I just don't understand what is going on in Pampa that makes Warren Chisum think the best use of his time around the legislature is to go after a population
of the citizenry that rarely lives in his district."
-- Rep. Debra Danburg

photograph by John Anderson

But in the eyes of the bills' supporters, placing children in the homes of homosexuals is just plain wrong. "The basic argument we've made is that this is an agency out of control, ignoring the law, but apparently they don't need to follow the law," said Kelly Shackelford, a Plano attorney who represents Bledsoe in her lawsuit against DPRS. Shackelford is also the executive director of the Free Market Foundation, an organization that seeks to "do everything in its power to make sure policy and law are protective of the family."

With the facts such as they are -- the number of children in need on the rise, and the number of prospective foster or adoptive parents on the decline -- the overriding question is simple: Will these bills help alleviate a problem, or are they just trying to make a statement?

For Rep. Danburg the answer is clear: "They decided to make this their statement du jour," she says. "Every session, these members try to find something to make a statement that is gay-bashing. I just don't understand what is going on in Pampa that makes Warren Chisum think the highest and best use of his time around the Legislature is to go after a population of the citizenry that rarely lives in his district." Indeed, Chisum authored an unsuccessful bill in the last Legislative session that implored the state not to recognize same-sex marriages. He's also spoken out against the hate crimes bill authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, because of its inclusion of gays and lesbians.

Danburg says that the fact that the adoption and foster care bills have wound up the in the State Affairs Committee, as opposed to the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, proves that they have very little to do with the practical aspects of making public policy. "The basic policy around the Legislature is that we don't pass bills just to make statements," she says. Danburg, meanwhile, has filed a response to the Chisum and Talton bills, in the form of HB 1181, which would prohibit any discrimination in foster or adoptive parent selection. She agrees that her bill may not be addressing any specific crisis within DPRS either, but she points out one distinction: "A major difference is that my bill would not cause major changes in the way the agency is operating, which is to make their decisions based on the best interests of the children."

As Danburg sees it, the Chisum and Talton bills would actually do more to create a crisis than to solve one. She cites the heavy financial burden of implementing the ban -- which, under Talton's legislation seeks not only to ban homosexuals from future adoptions, but also makes such cases retroactive, calling for the reinvestigation of all current foster families to ensure there isn't any homosexual activity in the home. Houston economist Carol T.F. Bennett, who has calculated the probable cost of implementing the legislation, puts the price tag at over $10million in the first year, and nearly $50 million over the next five years. "The $10 million annual cost is equivalent to hiring 333 new CPS caseworkers," Bennett says, adding that "for the same additional expenditures as the ban, the state could protect thousands of helpless Texas children and find them safe places to live and grow."

Talton has declined all requests for information or interviews pertaining to his legislation, but Chisum says the fact that CPS needs more money is moot. "There is nothing that you can justify doing a bad job for," he says. "If they don't have enough money or their caseload is going up, then we need to fund them for whatever they need to do. It does not give us the justification to say, well, if that's the case, then just turn some of them [children in state care] out to these [homosexual] homes."


Conservatives' Battle Cry

As long as an anti-sodomy law is on the books in Texas -- it's a Class C misdemeanor, the same as a speeding ticket - certain lawmakers will use it as justification to lawfully discriminate against homosexuals, Danburg insists. "While 21.06 [in the Texas Penal Code] has rarely been enforced on its face by police officers and prosecutors, it has been used with some frequency as a tool for discrimination," she says. "It's archaic." Incidentally, the law does not criminalize sodomy per se; it only criminalizes the act when it is between people of the same gender. "I would think if they really believe sodomy is wrong, then I would think it should apply to everyone," Danburg says.

This distinction, says gay rights lobbyist Hardy-Garcia, confirms that the bills are simply attempting to discriminate against certain segments of society. "They want to have certain rules only for certain segments of the population," she said. "It's sad that they don't even seem to really care what happens to these kids."

Austin family attorney Amie Rodnik, who has handled two same-sex adoption cases, agrees. "Wow! The legislation discusses deviate sexual conduct, but then only prohibits placement with homosexuals," she says."Does this mean that if one is a heterosexual pervert, it's okay to place the children there?"

Chisum responds: "It could be equally destructive" to have a heterosexual couple engaging in sexual deviance. "But we don't ask heterosexual couples what their sexual activity is, that's not part of it. What happens in their bedrooms never has been nor should it be [an issue]. It's just the whole deal where, if most homosexual couples do what they do, without making it a public statement, it wouldn't be an issue. But when they make it an issue, it has to become an issue. But they are the ones making it an issue, not me."

This type of reasoning is troubling to opponents of the bills. "At the same time I wonder why they are not more concerned about infidelity in marriage," says Danburg. "There are more people hurt in Pampa, and elsewhere, by infidelity -- which used to be illegal -- than are hurt by a couple of guys having sodomy in Houston. If they're so concerned about the moral breakdown in society, they should look at what's happening because of marital infidelity."

According to DPRS spokesperson Sheeley, that would be a good place to start. Sheely notes that a high percentage of kids that CPS must find homes for are from homes broken up by divorce, abuse, or abandonment.

"I've got kids waiting in a long line," adds adoption coordinator Belinda Hare. Chisum and Talton "are taking their beliefs [about homosexuals] and turning them into something that's not good for the children. Let's not impact the lives of others based on those very personal beliefs."

Again, proponents of the bills disagree that the law seeks to discriminate based on personal beliefs. "All the social science evidence says that in the best interest of the children this is not good," says Shackelford, the Plano attorney. And Chisum agrees. "It's a lifestyle that's very destructive," he says. "All the studies [show this destructiveness]. Stuff from the Centers for Disease Control, they have all those studies. They're not my studies."

In an exhaustive Internet search, however, the Chronicle was unable to unearth any such data supporting Chisum's claims. On the other hand, the search did turn up an American Psychological Association report detailing its research from 1957 to the present on the effects of gay and lesbian parents on children. The APA could find no conclusive detrimental links. "The results of existing research comparing gay and lesbian parents to heterosexual parents and children of gay and lesbian parents to children of heterosexual parents are quite uniform: Common stereotypes are not supported by the data," the report states.

As for Chisum, though he was unable to provide the research he used to reach his conclusions about the dangers of gay parenting, he insists that it exists nonetheless. "There is a lot of it," he says. "A huge amount of evidence that says the homosexual lifestyle is more prevalent to have AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, more partners. ... I don't think there is anyone who denies that. Not even them. So it's a lifestyle that's very destructive."

As for Talton, he has in the past pointed to a single source on which to base his opinion: "It's called the Judeo-Christian Bible," he has stated on record in past interviews.


Talton's Bill More Severe

An additional element that makes opponents of this legislation cringe is the intrusiveness that Talton's bill would impose. Under his legislation, CPS would be ordered to reinvestigate all current foster homes to determine if any homosexual activity is "or is likely" to be taking place in a home. And this does not apply solely to the primary caregivers, but in fact would include all household members from mom and dad, brother and sister, to grandma and grandpa. This type of intrusiveness could have a chilling effect on the number of people willing to serve as future foster parents, the bills' opponents say.

"What if another child in the house is gay?" asks Hardy-Garcia. "Or a grandparent? What then?" DPRS spokeswoman Sheeley takes the question a step further. "What if the child [CPS is placing] is gay? We have some teens that are gay or are cross dressers, and you want to make them go into a certain place only? If you take away from the total pool for us to choose from, then that hurts our ability to be able to take into account what's in the best interest of each child."

Does such a law sound too far-fetched to make it onto the books? If it can happen in Florida and New Hampshire, then clearly it can happen in Texas. However, New Hampshire, which has had a similar law on the books for about a decade, is seeking to revoke it this legislative session. Why? According to New Hampshire legislator Raymond Buckley -- as reported in the Quincy, Mass. Patriot Ledger -- the intrusiveness of the state's 1987 ban has caused a significant decrease in the number of potential foster parents. The repealing of the bill "would undo a great wrong and focus on what's best for the children," he says.

Unfortunately, CPS's Hare feels that this legislation is detracting from the real issues at hand: that there are thousands of kids in Texas waiting to be adopted -- children who are not easy to place. "In the past we were looking at populations of children that were true orphans or just socio-economically disadvantaged," she says. "But this child population has been fed by more horrendous things. [They've been] raped, beaten, hung by their toes in some cases. They are not your typical kids." And as a result, she says, there are not many "heterosexual couples waiting in line to adopt these kids," as Shackelford says he's been told. "If you know who these kids are, then what we do and need to do makes a lot of sense," says Hare. "And then some of these proposals make a lot less sense."

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