Just another picnic ... but not really

Ten years ago, same-sex couples in Pennsylvania won the right to adopt

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On a fine summer day a few weeks ago, some 150 people gathered for a multi-family picnic at the Shadyside Unitarian Church, doing what families do at these things. Exuberant kids were whacking each other with balloons, jumping in inflated bouncy houses and stuffing cupcakes in their chocolate-ringed mouths as parents chased them around the garden or kept watch from the sidelines, sharing stories, rocking infants in their arms.

What they were celebrating was the very fact of their official family status.

The families were headed by same-sex couples. Ten years ago, their children might not have had two legal parents, even though two parents were raising them together.

The issue was second-parent adoption, or lack thereof. In Pennsylvania at that time, there was no clear legal guarantee that children born or adopted into a gay- or lesbian-led family could be adopted by the second parent.

That changed in 2002 when, in response to a lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to adopt each other's kids.

It was a major victory and an important step toward equality, which is why so many families showed up to mark the anniversary. So did lawyers and support staff from the Women's Law Project of Allegheny County, which brought the lawsuit, and members of Pittsburgh PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), who kept the picnic food coming from kitchen to buffet table.

Prior to that landmark ruling, the children of same-sex couples had no right to the protections and security that automatically flowed to children of opposite-sex unions, such as inheritance rights, health insurance coverage from the second parent and the right to child support from the second parent.

For their part, the second parents had no right to legally make decisions for minor children on crucial matters such as medical care.

Of course, this problem would have been obviated by same-sex marriage, but it wasn't legal 10 years ago in any state. Still, 14 counties in Pennsylvania, including Allegheny, were granting second-parent adoptions. But Lancaster, Erie and Montgomery were not, and couples there who filed adoption petitions saw them dismissed out of hand with no hearing or evidence.

"Each county could do what it wanted until an appeals court said otherwise," said their attorney, Chris Biancheria. "Then all counties would have to follow the ruling. That's why it was scary to appeal, because a bad decision could shut down second-parent adoption in the counties that were doing it."

But they believed their case was strong, so two couples -- Carole and Barbara Fryberger of Lancaster and Jeffrey and Joseph Grego of Erie -- appealed to Superior Court. The full court heard their case and ruled against them.

They pushed on to the state Supreme Court, where Ms. Biancheria told the justices that the families were already a fact. They existed with or without legal protection. The only question was whether the children were entitled to the same rights as other children.

"The justices were unanimous in our favor, Republicans and Democrats alike," said Ms. Biancheria. "That to me was an amazing demonstration of judges applying the law without ideology or stereotyping."

The whole process took five years of nail-biting from beginning to end, but you'd never know it from Reese and Robby Fryberger, twin sons of Carole and Barbara. They were infants when Barbara's adoption petition was denied, and 5 when the case was won, too young to grasp the implications. At 15, they say their lives are as normal as can be, with no problems in their public school or the neighborhood. As far as they're concerned, the way things are is the way they've always been.

"They don't realize the importance of what happened," said Carole, who gave birth to the boys. "They don't know what it would be like to have people say Barbara was not your mom."

Asked if he understood the landmark nature of his parents' lawsuit, Reese glanced at some other parents and kids and said, "It's starting to dawn on me now."

Added Carole, "When we started this there was a lot of negativity. But over five years, opinions changed. Now it's not an issue."

Not an issue. That is not a phrase one would have heard among this group a decade ago. But opinions really have changed, in part driven by research showing that children in two-parent families are more likely to do better in life -- regardless of the gender of those parents.

To wit: In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement supporting the right of same-sex couples to adopt each other's children. The academy had reviewed two decades of studies. Most found that the children of gay or lesbian parents were as well-adjusted socially and psychologically as the children of heterosexual parents. Those kids, the academy concluded, deserve the same rights and protections that other children are routinely accorded.

Looking around at all the families picnicking on the church lawn that afternoon, I couldn't have told you which kids would grow up to cure cancer, rob convenience stores, travel the world or make their first million by age 21. It was enough to know that because of a lawsuit filed 15 year ago, they had the protections that every kid deserves.


Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1610).


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