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Proud to call Maryland home

The Baltimore Sun

Little League sign-up was the final straw.

Cynthia Garnette and her partner have two sons - one born to Garnette, one her partner adopted at birth - but Virginia law made it impossible for them, as a same-sex couple, to both be legal parents of both kids. It occurred to Garnette one day, as she was taking her 5-year-old son to play baseball, that she could run into trouble registering him because of her tenuous legal situation.

"That's my son. He's been my son from the time he was born," she said. "But if they said to me point-blank, 'Are you his legal guardian?' in front of my son, I would have had to say no."

Shortly after, Garnette pulled up decades-old roots and moved to Maryland, becoming part of a growing population of openly gay and lesbian adoptive parents. The number of such families is rising nationwide, most adoption experts agree, but the ranks in Maryland have gotten a boost from some unique factors, including the emigration of gay parents with children from Washington to the grassy, kid-ready suburbs and from Virginia, where their families are not legally recognized.

Maryland's appeal is bolstered by the reputation of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, which was the first in the state to grant a second-parent adoption to a gay partner. It is well-known in certain circles as a friendly and efficient place for gay couples to complete adoptions and has, as a result, become a popular jurisdiction for such proceedings. Gay families also say they are drawn to Maryland because of the climate of acceptance they've found in the state.

"I was willing to be rebellious and a maverick in younger days, but not with my children," said Garnette, a 48-year-old accountant. "You just don't want to be on pins and needles. It's just too important. You're talking about a kid's life."

After moving to Silver Spring, Garnette and her partner went to court and each formally adopted the other child, allowing them to be the sort of family they had always planned - not "mine, yours, ours." As an unexpected bonus, they were able to switch to one family health insurance plan.

Almost 4,400 children were adopted in Maryland in 2001, the most recent year that complete figures were available, according to the U.S. Children's Bureau. There are no figures for how many of them were adopted by gay parents. But a recent study found that Maryland is a leader in the total number of adopted children living in gay or lesbian households, ranking eighth among the states.

Using the 2000 Census, researchers from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a UCLA think tank, and the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, determined that 2,142 of the 32,269 adopted children in Maryland were living with gay couples.

That report presented a snapshot only, but anecdotally, there are signs in courts, family clinics, law offices and adoption agencies that those numbers are climbing. In the Baltimore City Circuit Court, where many of the state's gay adoption cases land, a third of the parents on any given adoption day often are same-sex couples, said Mark Scurti, a Baltimore lawyer who concentrates on gay family law. The day Garnette was there, she says, most of the other families looked like hers.

The majority of gay families who adopt from Washington's Child and Family Services Agency live in Maryland, said Charelia Bazemore, a social worker. Thanks partly to the agency's relatively recent effort to reach out to the gay community at the Capital Pride festival and other events, she said, gay parents adopted between 50 and 100 children in the last year - a significant portion of the agency's 300 adoptions during that period.

"It's been a steady increase from five years ago, and I think you're going to see an even greater increase as more gay and lesbian couples get a taste of legal rights that they never thought they could have," Scurti said.

The law varies substantially from state to state. Virginia doesn't have a published court decision on this issue, but because of the political and legislative tenor in the state, few gay couples risk trying to adopt there, Scurti said. Washington allows second-parent adoption by same-sex couples.

The current state of the law in Maryland - based on precedent - is that gay couples may adopt. But there is no explicit finding on the issue by the state's highest court, nor is there any legislation directly addressing it. Judges in some jurisdictions have declined to grant such adoptions.

That's why Baltimore has become central station for gay families looking to adopt. Attorneys who represent gay couples say the judges are conscientious and fair. "Couples say, 'Why should I take chance in other counties?'" Scurti said.

Garnette said the process in the Baltimore Circuit Court was "like McDonald's."

"It seemed like, 'Sign here, do this.' It was not simple, but it was pretty rote," she said.

Gary Krupnick also went to court in Baltimore.

In many ways, Krupnick's life has followed a traditional trajectory. "As typical as it can be," he said.

He and his partner were set up on a blind date and married in a commitment ceremony in 2001. They always knew they wanted to have kids. They also knew that at some point post-children, they would heed the advice of legal experts to get out of Virginia so they could both share full parental rights and responsibilities.

And that's what they did. After they adopted their elder son from Vietnam, Krupnick's partner found a new job, and they settled in Rockville, down the street from the elementary school their sons will attend. They completed a second-parent adoption and then brought home a second son, also from Vietnam, last year.

Such personal tales about the exodus from Virginia are not hard to find.

"The vast majority of gay and lesbian families considering children will flee Virginia - at least if they stop and think about it - because of the security they gain through a second-parent adoption and through avoiding the explicitly hostile legislation in Virginia," said Micah Salb, a Bethesda-based lawyer who leads a class for prospective gay parents. "And it's not uncommon for someone to leave a Virginia neighborhood and find something similar and comfortable for them in Maryland."

Washington is also an attractive option for those wishing to stay in the metropolitan area, but many gay mothers and fathers are pulled to suburbia for all the workaday reasons families have drifted there for decades.

"We definitely considered D.C., but the main reason we chose Maryland is because the school system is much better and the cost of living, the cost of houses," Krupnick said.

And while Washington - like a lot of urban centers - has a sizable gay population and a friendly air, gay families say that Maryland does, too.

"I've been waiting for the shock - 'Two fathers?' - but we haven't gotten any of that. I can't remember a single occasion where someone tried to reprimand us," said Patrick Cox, 39, an interior designer in Annapolis who adopted a newborn with his male partner three months ago.

"It isn't just the law. It's the culture, the sense that schools are tolerant and welcoming and have respect for diversity and difference," said Susan Silber, a Takoma Park lawyer who, like many of her clients, raised her kids with a same-sex partner. "I have two children who have gone through Montgomery public schools, and both feel that was true for them."

Also, administratively, the adoption process in Maryland is easier than it is in other places, such as Washington, because there is no mandatory waiting period for adoptive parents. (The wait in Washington is six months.) And while the Baltimore Circuit Court traditionally waives home studies in second-parent adoption cases - if the lawyer has done a thorough job presenting the case - the court in Washington recently stopped that practice, Salb said.

Not that Maryland is always paradise for gay families.

Garnette says she has made her home in the state, and she is happy here. She loves her neighborhood. She and her partner have good jobs, good friends.

Yet sometimes she feels wistful. She sees herself as a "Virginia girl" through and through and always thought she would retire there. If the laws changed tomorrow, she would probably go back.

"Having come here, it's great," she said. "But, I resent the fact that the choice was made for me."

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