One variety of adoption story that is often overlooked during National Adoption MOnth is the second-parent adoption, a legal proceeding that safeguards the rights of non-biological parents, which is available by statute or precedent in only a handful of states and on a case-by-case basis in several others. Today's post is from Amie Klempnauer Miller, author of She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood, from which this essay is adapted.
Despite the fact that I always forget it, overshadowed as it is by Mother's Day, which has to do double duty in our family, May 16 is our Adoption Day. It's the day when, more than six years ago now, I stood in a courtroom in Minneapolis and adopted my own daughter. It's an odd thing, really, to stand before a judge and be given official permission to care for the child whom you helped call into being, when she is already yours, and you are already hers.
At the time of the adoption, my partner, Jane, and I had already been together nineteen years. I began the adoption paperwork while Jane was pregnant, but I could not adopt Hannah until there actually was a Hannah, an out-in-the-world Hannah, to be adopted. When we went to the hospital for the birth, I carried a manila folder containing two forms designating me as Standby Custodian-- one that would allow me to make medical decisions should Jane become incapacitated before Hannah’s birth and another allowing me to make decisions should something happen to Jane afterward. Upon our return from the hospital, however, I became the legal equivalent of a live-in guest in our home.
Our lawyer, Ann, had diligently navigated us through the various required forms and procedures. She petitioned the Minnesota Department of Human Services, requesting an Order and Decree of Adoption. She requested a waiver of the home study, based on the facts that Jane and I had lived together since 1987 and Hannah had lived with us since she popped out into the world. Jane and I filed an affidavit spelling out our reasons for wanting the adoption. Jane is the birth parent, it noted. Amie was present when Hannah was born. (I was in the hallway, but close enough.) The decision to have Hannah was mutual. Amie is equally involved in the care and nurture of Hannah "including feeding, bathing, grooming, and dressing; purchasing, cleaning, and caring for her clothes; arranging for medical care, arranging for child care as needed, putting her to bed at night, attending to her during the night, waking her in the morning, and teaching elementary skills."
The affidavit pointed out that "Hannah needs and deserves the legal protection resulting from adoption" including not having to go through guardianship and custodianship proceedings in the event of Jane's death. The adoption would ensure my capacity to make decisions about medical care or carry Hannah on an insurance policy. It would enable Hannah to claim survivor benefits from Social Security and to claim continuing financial support should I decide to become a deadbeat mom. The affidavit further noted that the Court might decide that Jane's parental rights must be terminated in order for me to adopt Hannah, meaning that Jane would then have to adopt her as well. We filed a formal request asking the Court not to require this.
We paid the fee to search the Minnesota Fathers' Adoption Registry, which seemed ridiculous since we had used the sperm of an anonymous donor. But it was required by law, and we now had a form in our possession verifying that "No putative father is registered." Ann's assistant took affidavits from my mother, my father, and from Jane's parents stating their support of my adoption of Hannah. All of the paperwork was in order, one form after another that would allow me to become what I already was.
On the big day, we drove to the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center where Ann gave us the happy news that we were assigned to a judge she knew well. "This will be easy," she said pleasantly. In fact, the process itself is simple. Adoptions by same-sex partners in Hennepin County follow the protocol used for stepparent adoptions. Minnesota is not one of the states that officially permit second-parent adoptions by same-sex partners, but judges in some of the counties here had a track record of approving them. Hennepin County, home of Minneapolis, was the most reliable of all, so we felt pretty secure.
A few minutes before our appointed time, Ann reported that we had been reassigned to a new judge. "I haven't worked with him before," she said. "But he’ll probably be fine." Probably. My feelings of security buckled. Even in mostly liberal Hennepin County, approval of second-parent adoptions is entirely contingent on the judge. The fate of my legal relationship to Hannah suddenly hung on probably.
I carried Hannah into the courtroom, trying my best to look emotionally fit and bursting with maternal instinct. We stood as the judge entered the room. I tried to suss out his political and religious leanings by watching him walk to the bench. He confirmed why we were all there. Then, God bless him, he said, "I like these kinds of cases because everyone leaves a winner."
I answered a few basic questions, mainly aimed at confirming that I understood that legal adoption means legal responsibility. Should Jane and I break up, I would still be legally responsible for Hannah’s support. After running through the rote questions and admonitions, the judge approved the adoption, and then passed out lollipops and posed for pictures. Weirdly, even now, the legal ties between Jane and me run most tightly through Hannah. Jane is legally her mother, as am I, but Jane and I still have no enforceable connection to each other beyond the paper trail we have forged through wills and powers of attorney.
I carefully folded a copy of the adoption order and placed it in my wallet, where it remains six years later. It declares that Jane and I are both, equally, the official parents of Hannah Elisabeth Klempnauer Miller. We are a fact. We are a family.