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Dane County judges grant adoptions to married lesbian couples

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Dane County judges have begun granting adoptions that recognize marriages of same-sex couples.

And on Wednesday, after they adopted the two children they’ve been raising, a Madison couple talked about their case with the State Journal — and persuaded a judge to open the normally closed juvenile court record — so that other gay married couples will know it’s possible.

“The tides are changing faster and faster, and the judges are seeing it,” said Kat Riley, who adopted the 2-year-old biological daughter of her spouse, Teresa Riley.

In the same hearing on Wednesday, Teresa Riley adopted Kat Riley’s 4-year-old biological son. Both children were conceived with the help of a sperm donor.

The Rileys have been together for six years and are registered as domestic partners in Wisconsin. They were married in Iowa last year.

Before Wednesday, each child had one legal parent and one legal guardian. Now both children have two parents and rights involving inheritance, death benefits, child support and insurance coverage from both. The adoptions also provide each parent with greater rights and responsibilities.

Dane County Circuit Judge Shelley Gaylord approved the adoptions, saying she was bound to recognize the marriage as constitutionally valid, according to a transcript of the closed hearing.

Gaylord said she was granting the adoptions in part because Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban has been found unconstitutional. Gaylord said the Rileys’ marriage in Iowa must be considered valid in Wisconsin under the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the full faith and credit clause, which requires states to honor each other’s laws.

Possible trend,
but no precedent

The scope of the ruling is limited, however, because it appears unlikely the case will be appealed to a higher court, said attorney Michele Perreault, who has represented two couples in successful stepparent adoption proceedings in Dane County.

“If the attorney general ignores this adoption, which they said they are going to do, it won’t have a broader impact for the state,” Perreault said. “It will not be binding precedent, but will assist judges in considering similar cases.”

Perreault notified Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen about her clients’ legal challenge, as required by state law, but the Department of Justice declined to weigh in, saying it might get involved if the case goes to an appeals court, where it would have broader effect if upheld.

Van Hollen’s spokeswoman, Dana Brueck, said the department routinely receives notice of such challenges but hasn’t stepped into one going back at least to 2011. The department considers appeals court cases that could have statewide impact.

Perreault said she would like Van Hollen to “make a statement on whether he believes these children are entitled to equal protection under the law.”

The couple’s adoptions were granted a day after Van Hollen asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal appeals court ruling that Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.

In June, after U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ordered the ban thrown out, hundreds of Wisconsin couples were married. A week later, the nuptials stopped as Crabb granted Van Hollen’s request that her order be delayed pending appeals. On Sept. 4, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district judge. The status of Crabb’s order remains unchanged pending action by the high court.

Several adoptions

Several attorneys in Dane County have been working with gay clients who want to adopt.

On Aug. 13, Dane County Circuit Judge Julie Genovese granted Sarah Davis and Heather Schaller of Madison what may have been the first adoption by a same-sex married couple in Dane County, and possibly in the state, said Perreault, who is their attorney.

Because adoption hearings are held privately, it’s impossible to know if other couples have been able to adopt in Dane County or elsewhere in the state.

Davis and Schaller married on June 11 in Madison, and they filed the same day for Schaller to adopt Frances, the daughter Davis gave birth to five years ago.

“We’re very happy, but it’s bittersweet,” Davis said. “What I worry about is loving families who can’t afford to do the home study and hire an attorney.”

Stepparent adoption is one of the least expensive ways to adopt, Perreault said. But the costs, including the required home study — a social service agency evaluation of the family — can run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Kat Riley said the potential danger of her job as a Madison police detective added urgency to the adoption. If she is killed in the line of duty, substantial financial benefits mandated by state and federal law will go to both children now that the adoptions have been granted, instead of just her biological child.

Before the judge ruled in their case, the Rileys told the children that Wednesday was going to be a special day.

But the young ones don’t understand the legalities, and they already see themselves and their mothers as a real, fully formed family, Riley said.

“We look forward to years from now when we’ll be talking about it with the kids and laughing about how ridiculous this was that we were adopting our own kids,” she said.

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