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Florida House Passes Religious Exemption To Block Gay Adoptions

By Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Florida House on Thursday approved $690 million in tax cuts and a bill allowing residents fleeing hurricanes to carry guns without a permit, but the bill attracting the most controversy allows private adoption agencies to reject gay couples if they have a religious or moral objection.

The vote for that measure (HB 7111) was 75-38, with most Democrats opposing the bill, calling it state-sponsored discrimination.

Representative David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), likened the measure to the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s, citing the sit-ins at the lunch counters of Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.

“If you’re open to the public, you’re open to the public,” said Richardson, the first openly gay member of the Legislature. “If the lunch counter’s open, it’s open for everyone.”

Republicans, however, countered that forcing religious adoption agencies to either go against their consciences or shut down would ultimately lead to less opportunities for children in need of foster parents. Also, gay couples can go to another of Florida’s 82 adoption agencies if they are refused, they argued.

Representative Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), suggested lawsuits were already being lined up to restrain religious adoption agencies from refusing gay couples.

“You may disagree with their beliefs, you may even think that they’re crazy, but they are their sincerely held beliefs,” said Representative Scott Plakon (R-Longwood).

Social conservative groups put pressure on Republican legislators after the House voted last month to strike down Florida’s ban on gay adoption. An appeals court struck down the provision in 2010 and the Florida Department of Children and Families doesn’t enforce the ban, but the statute has remained on Florida’s books.

The bill still needs to pass the Senate.

Most Democrats also objected to SB 290, which would allow residents under mandatory evacuation orders to carry firearms without a concealed weapons permit up to 48 hours after the order is given.

Representative Ed Narain (D-Tampa), said the bill would bring unintended consequences, especially for black males, similar to the “stand your ground” law.

“It’s the potential combination of these two (laws) that could mix and create a deadly scenario that none of us want to imagine or even consider,” Narain said.

But Republicans in favor of the bill said it was needed to protect property during hectic evacuation periods, especially firearms that aren’t protected through permits or licenses.

“What some people in this chamber don’t understand…is that you can’t get a permit or a license for a rifle or a shotgun,” said Representative Neil Combee (R-Polk City).

The bill passed 86-26 and now heads to Governor Rick Scott’s desk.

A bill garnering more bipartisan support was HB 7141, which cuts $690 million in taxes, mostly from cable, satellite, and phone bills. The cut to the communication services tax will save TV and phone users $470 million, with the average cable user spending $100 a month saving about $43 over 12 months. The cut is a top priority for Scott.

Although some Democrats bemoaned parts of the bill cutting sales taxes on gun club memberships and providing a sales tax holiday for some firearms and ammunition on July Fourth, the bill passed 112-3.

The Senate has advanced individual tax cut bills but because of the uncertainty surrounding the Medicaid budget that the chamber is waiting to pass its preferred tax-cutting measures.

Photo: Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program via Flickr

Vietnam, U.S. Restart Adoptions After Six-Year Ban

Hanoi (AFP) — American parents will again be allowed to adopt Vietnamese children, authorities said Tuesday, ending a six-year ban imposed after allegations of baby-selling and fraud but with new restrictions.

Two American agencies have been awarded licences but new U.S. adoptions will be limited to children aged over five, sibling groups and those with special needs, the U.S. State Department said.

Americans have been unable to adopt from Vietnam since a 2008 ban imposed due to U.S. embassy concerns that many adoptees had been trafficked or given up after their families were coerced.

Vietnam denied these claims but agreed to suspend adoptions with the United States.

A year later a U.N.-commissioned report found that largely unregulated cash payments by adoption agencies to orphanages had encouraged them to source babies and children, often with inadequate background checks.

Communist Vietnam went on to ratify the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of inter-country adoption in 2011. It also revised its domestic law on adoption the same year.

“The United States welcomes Vietnam’s efforts to enhance its child welfare and intercountry adoption system,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement Tuesday.

It named Dillon International and Holt International Children’s Services as the US agencies newly authorized to help handle adoptions in Vietnam.

– ‘Good step’ –

Nguyen Van Binh, director of the international adoption department at Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice, confirmed it had granted licences to the firms.

There are now a total of 36 foreign adoption agencies operating in Vietnam, he told AFP, from countries including France, Italy and Sweden.

Before the ban, only some five percent of adoptees were aged five years or older and the majority were under two, state media reported.

Tad Kincaid, founder of Ho Chi Minh City-based Orphan Impact, welcomed the restarting of adoptions with new restrictions as “a good step”.

“It makes sense to focus on children who are hardest to place, as they are most likely to spend their entire childhood in an orphanage,” he told AFP.

Kincaid said the problems with fraud, corruption or incomplete paperwork that had led to breakdowns in the U.S.-Vietnam adoption process would be eased due to the acceptance of higher standards across the board.

“This is not just unique to Vietnam, this has been a change worldwide in the way many countries are approaching adoption” since the Hague Convention came into force, he said.

Experts also say that restricting the licence to two U.S. agencies — before the ban there were dozens — will make it easier for authorities to police the process and prevent corruption.

The lifting of the U.S.-Vietnam adoptions ban comes as the former wartime foes move closer together, with a string of recent high-level visits, talk of ending a ban on sales of lethal weapons — in place due to human rights concerns — and greater trade ties.

American interest in adopting from Vietnam is particularly high, in part due to publicity generated when Hollywood star Angelina Jolie adopted her son Pax from Vietnam in 2007.

Estimates of the number of children in Vietnamese orphanages vary widely — from around 143,000 to 1.5 million, said Orphan Impact’s Kincaid.

The director of a Hanoi-based orphanage, speaking on condition of anonymity as he did not have permission to talk to the press, said resuming adoptions was good news for Vietnamese orphans.

“At orphanages, we can only give them things provided by the state — which is never going to be as good as care in a family,” he said.

AFP Photo/Hoang Dinh Nam

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Don’t Use Religion To Cloak Bias Toward LGBT Families

Growing up with two moms in the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought a family was defined by loud dinners, birthday parties, overprotective parents and unconditional love.

Then, when I was 7 years old, a girl in my class told me I couldn’t sit with her and her friends because I wasn’t a “real person.” The reason? I didn’t have a mommy and a daddy — so how could I possibly have been born?

My classmate hardly understood how babies were made, yet she was certain that a family couldn’t be a family if it had two moms. Adults, of course, should know better. Yet, judging from a bill currently before Congress, at least some of the adults representing Americans in Washington don’t understand that families come in many varieties.

The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2014 would allow federally funded child welfare service providers in any of the 19 states where marriage equality is the law to deny adoption rights to same-sex couples without fear of losing taxpayer funding.

The bill, written by Senator Michael B. Enzi (R-WY) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), never specifically mentions same-sex couples, but its intentions are clear. It would bar state governments that receive federal funding for child welfare services from taking any adverse action against an agency based on its refusal “to provide, facilitate or refer for a child welfare service that conflicts with, or under circumstances that conflict with, the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

In some of the states that allow same-sex marriages, faith-based providers have shut down rather than let LGBT parents adopt or foster children. This bill would provide those agencies with a loophole, allowing them to deny services to same-sex couples without repercussion. But cloaking discrimination in the language of “religious beliefs” and “moral convictions” doesn’t change the fact that the law would be discriminatory.

The law’s introduction is disheartening, especially at a time when so much momentum has built for more inclusive laws and policies. I know firsthand the harm that can come to families when laws are inequitable.

When I was 10, I learned that my parents had never gotten married, because same-sex marriage was illegal. That didn’t compute. I had loving, dedicated parents, yet those in power were denying them the right to be a legal family?

The law also denied me a legal relationship with my non-biological mother. She was every bit as much a parent to me, but according to the state she wasn’t my family, let alone my mom. In order for Judy to be allowed to adopt me, my birth mom, Teri, would have had to forgo all her parental rights, and even then the adoption would have had to be approved. It is alarming, in retrospect, to think that if Teri had passed away, Judy would have had no automatic legal right to continue being my parent. That changed in 1999, when the state allowed second-parent adoption in domestic partnerships, a reform upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2003. But in many states, such laws have not been reformed.

Freedom of religion is crucial. But it should never be used as a cover for discrimination, which is exactly what the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act would do. As many as 6 million Americans today have LGBT parents. These are real families entitled to real rights without loopholes. I hope a majority of the U.S. Congress will see this proposed law for what it is: a legislative assault on basic human rights — and on families.

And for those having difficulty figuring out what a family is, just ask any child raised by gay parents — we’ll be happy to tell you.

Julia Bleckner is an associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Guillame Paumier via Flickr

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Sold Illegally From A Clinic, Adoptees Use DNA To Seek Birth Families

By Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. — At a small inn tucked behind a Chevron gas station just off U.S. 64, men and women in their 50s and 60s trickled into room 109 Saturday morning. A teacher, a former newspaper editor, and a hairdresser were among the first to arrive. They came from Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee to have their cheeks swabbed, hoping their DNA might help them find their birth families and the missing link to their medical histories.

Even if the tests turn up just one match, said organizer Melinda Elkins Dawson, of Akron, Ohio, their efforts will have been worth it.
Like many of those who gathered here Saturday, Dawson is one of about 200 co-called Hicks babies, infants given up by their birth mothers and sold in the 1950s and 1960s from Dr. Thomas Hicks’ clinic in McCaysville, a sleepy Georgia town, just across the state border.

In all, 30 people — some Hicks babies, some potential relatives and their supporters — turned out for the testing, performed free by Ohio-based DNA Diagnostic Center. It could take up to three months to test all the participants’ samples, but what’s 90 days compared to the lifetime these baby boomers have been waiting to find their birth families?

Dawson began searching in earnest in the late ’90s until a family tragedy stalled her efforts. When she turned 51 in February, she decided the time was right to resume her search. Hicks babies are getting older, after all.

“We really needed to step up our efforts,” she said.

Many of them have been here before, their hopes ignited then dashed after another Hicks baby, Jane Blasio, spearheaded a similar DNA testing effort in 1997. Blasio’s search, aided by Judge Linda Davis of the Fannin County probate court, turned a spotlight on the town and the doctor who sold them.

With few exceptions, the search for a match has come up empty or led to disappointments.

When the news first broke, Paul Payne, 61, of Hixon, Tenn., said his former baby sitter contacted him. She gave him the name of a woman she believed was his mother, where she went to college, what her father did.

“I started researching that and everything she told me matched, but I still have not been able to prove anything,” he said.

Payne tracked the woman down at a nursing home in Florida. He called her, but when she answered, he couldn’t speak.

“I hung up,” he said. He had second thoughts about disrupting her life.

Two weeks later, he learned she’d died. Her son refused to test her DNA.

“I’m being optimistic, but I’m a realist,” said Payne, as the testing drew to a close. “Unless I can find some relative who is close enough to who I believe is my mother to give DNA, I’ll probably never know for sure.”

Hicks baby Diane Conrad learned she had a sister — also a Hicks baby — after that first go-round of DNA testing.

“She was three years younger than me,” Conrad said. “She grew up in West Akron, a 20-minute drive from my neighborhood.”

The women met once at Conrad’s home, comparing noses and foreheads. Over the next six years, they remained in frequent contact, but when her sister divorced, that was the end of it.

“She dropped off the face of the earth,” Conrad said. “I tried calling, but she didn’t return calls. After a year or two, I just gave it up.”

Provided her birth parents are still around, she’s hoping the test will help her connect with them.

“I don’t want to drop into anybody’s life, destroy anybody’s relationships,” Conrad said. “I just want medical history. That’s my priority.”

In the late ’90s, Dawson and her adopted mother, Judith Johnson, shared their story on television talk shows like “The Maury Show.” But she aborted her search in 1998, when her husband, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of murdering Johnson.

Instead of searching for her birth mother, Dawson would spend the next seven years trying to prove her husband’s innocence. Elkins was exonerated through DNA testing and the true killer was convicted.

Dawson has known since age 7 her parents got her from the McCaysville clinic run by Hicks, who died in 1972. According to Dawson’s adopted parents, Hicks said her birth mother had two other children and “had been involved with someone very prominent who couldn’t afford the scandal.”

“Dr. Hicks and his nurse told lots of stories, so who knows if that’s true,” Dawson said, as if still half-believing all these years later.

Indeed no one knows for sure whether Hicks, generally beloved by the townspeople of McCaysville, sold the babies for profit or simply recouped the cost of caring for the mothers.

And that’s perhaps the most troubling thing in all this, Payne said. Nobody knows anything for certain. Complicating matters, Hicks provided fake birth certificates that listed the buyers as the birth parents, erasing any evidence of the babies’ real mothers.

AFP Photo/File

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