DETROIT (WXYZ) - Imagine not being allowed to adopt a child you had raised since birth. That is what some same-sex partners are facing. Michigan is among a handful of states that still offers no legal protections for gays and lesbians – and that can have major consequences for their children.
7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo has an exclusive look at what could be a landmark legal battle that's brewing in Michigan.
A local lesbian couple has been raising three children since birth, kids who otherwise would have been in the foster care system. One of the women adopted one child – while the other woman had to adopt the other two – that's because the law in Michigan won't let them jointly adopt all three kids. And they're hoping this lawsuit will change the lives of children all over Michigan.
April Deboer and Jayne Rowse have dedicated their lives to raising three small children – two of whom have special needs. April and Jayne are both nurses – and they have been in a committed relationship for more than a decade.
"We didn't find our children, our children found us," says Doboer.
The couple tried artificial insemination – but April miscarried triplets. They tried several private adoptions – only to have their hearts broken again and again when birth mother's would change their minds.
But one day, a young homeless woman who was unable to care for a child gave birth to Nolan. April and Jayne brought the baby home – and Jayne ultimately adopted Nolan. Because the Michigan Constitution bans same-sex marriage – same-sex couples cannot jointly adopt children.
"I don't see how that puts the best interest of the child at the forefront," says Rowse.
A year later, a teenage mom gave birth at home, and then gave up baby Ryanne under Michigan's Safe Haven law at the hospital. April jumped at the chance to adopt the little girl. But, again, Jayne cannot legally be Ryanne's parent as well.
Then came baby Jacob, who was born to a drug-addicted mother, and delivered prematurely at 25 weeks. Ironically, April and Jayne could become legal same-sex foster parents to Jacob, but now that Jayne has officially adopted him, April has no parental rights.
"When we were foster parents, we had more rights to our children than we do now as adoptive parents," says Rowse. "We each had the legal say-so in what happened to our foster son. And now that he's adopted, she's like an invisible person to him in the eyes of the law."
"Michigan has some of the worst laws in the country for gay and lesbian parents," says attorney Carole Stanyar, who represents the couple. "And these laws in particular are hurting families, and as we can see in this case, they're hurting children."
That's why Stanyar and attorney Dana Nessel are filing this lawsuit against Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette. They're challenging Michigan's Adoption Code, which only allows married couples or single people to adopt children.
"In our view, a law that is based on irrational prejudice with no legitimate purpose is unconstitutional, plain and simple," says Nessel.
Nessel says the legal rights of children of same-sex couples are being hurt in many ways. If one of their parents dies, the other parent would have no legal claim to the child.
"So in the event something happened to her, not only would her children lose their mom, but they would also lose the only other parent they know and their sibling," says Doboer.
Also, when April takes the boys to the doctor, she has to take Jayne with her.
"I can't legally sign for treatments. I can't legally sign for anything. I have to wait for her to show up to the hospital in order to get treatment," she says.
Lawyers say the children of same-sex couples also don't have the same inheritance rights that other kids do. They also can't receive social security disability from the non-adoptive parent, or health insurance. Also if a same-sex couple separates, they have no legal ability to see the children that they didn't adopt.
Nessel says if this civil rights suit changes the law, approximately 10,000 children in same-sex homes in Michigan will be impacted. And she believes hundreds of other same-sex couples will start giving permanent homes to foster children.
"They want to take children who have no homes, who have no parents and give them a real family, says Nessel. "And they're afraid to do it, because they don't want to be faced with the decision of who gets to be the legal parent of the child. So they simply don't do it or they leave the state."
"We want to protect our children," says Deboer. "We want our children to stay in the family that they know, because it's the only family that they know."
A spokeswoman for Governor Snyder says they can't comment on the lawsuit because it hasn't been filed and they haven't seen it yet. But Snyder's spokesperson says when they do have it, the Attorney General will review it.
The lawsuit was filed Monday morning in Federal Court.
If this lawsuit successfully changes the law, lawyers estimate about 10,000 children who are already in same-sex partner homes will be impacted. The suit is being funded solely through private donations. For more information visit: http://deboerrowseadoptionfund.nesselandkessellaw.com/sample-page/