The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Renee Perrier and her spouse, Karen Combs, had their first child in 2009. Perrier had carried the baby through pregnancy, so the law automatically considers her a parent. But the monthslong “home study” process required for Combs to become the child’s legal guardian was demoralizing, Perrier says.

As a social worker, Perrier was already familiar with the adoption process. But neither parent was prepared for the six-month process of second-parent adoption.

“It also felt as if I didn’t have a choice in that matter, after I had carried my children, our children, and given birth to them,” Perrier said during a D.C. Council hearing yesterday. She testified in support of a bill that would expedite second-parent adoptions for couples who use assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilization.

“I could not have imagined having done that without my wife, who was beside me every step of the way, both emotionally, … physically as well as financially,” Perrier added. 

A new bill introduced by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson earlier this month would give families who use fertility treatments involving eggs or embryos the right to an expedited adoption. The bill, written by Perrier and Combs’ lawyer, Michele Zavos, would eliminate the wait times for second-parent adoptions associated with home studies, cutting the six-month wait to as short as one week. It would drop the criminal background check requirement for individuals not reported in the Child Protection Register for alleged child abuse or neglect. It would also require fewer documents.

Maryland, California, and New Jersey have already passed laws making adoption easier for same-sex couples, with fewer required documents, including no criminal or FBI checks. If approved, the process in the District would be even easier than Maryland, which requires a letter of insemination or donor consent from a sperm donor. (D.C. law says that a sperm donor is not a legal parent, Zavos points out.)

While the law would apply to both straight and LGBTQIA couples living in D.C. who use ART, it’s typically more problematic for partners who aren’t or don’t present as opposite-sex couples to be recognized under “marital presumption” outside the District. While all states in the U.S. legally allow same-sex couples to adopt, some have more barriers in place throughout the process. Marital presumption, usually applied with no issues to straight couples, means that a child born inside a marriage is deemed the legal child of both parents, Zavos explains. But, she says, “most of us don’t live our lives only in the District, where we have very good laws around these kinds of issues, but go outside.”

Some courts around the country have refused to apply the martial presumption for same-sex couples, especially lesbian couples who have children together, according to Zavos. The discrepancy can have dire consequences. The non-birth parent may lose custody or any opportunity to see their children if the couple separates, or may not be considered a parent for government benefits. Zavos urges same-sex couples in D.C. who want to have a baby to get a second-parent adoption as soon as possible after the child’s birth, and the bill would speed up the process.

Amid high adoption costs and the pandemic, Perrier and Combs have yet to undergo second-parent adoption for their second child. But aging parents and a quickly growing family mean they might someday have to move to Perrier’s hometown in Louisiana. The thought terrifies Perrier. 

“I just can’t help but feel demoralized myself. It’s just a failing way to do this,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who led the hearing on the bill. “And it doesn’t respect the love and partnership and family that’s being created.” 

“The bottom line is … justice equity,” Combs said. “Other families don’t have to go through this. Why do we?”