ATLANTA, Ga. In a hearing held May 2, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Wilkinson County Superior Court to return a vulnerable seven-year-old girl to the woman in whose care she had been thriving for a year. The county’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has held the girl in foster care since Feb. 20, when a judge took her away after he learned that she was being raised by a lesbian.
“I haven’t seen Emma for over two months, and it breaks my heart to know that she’s not doing well in foster care right now,” said Elizabeth Hadaway, a 28-year-old paramedic who first took in the little girl when the child’s biological mother asked her to raise and adopt Emma. “Even DFCS’s own child welfare expert agreed that she should never have been taken from her home and that she needs the kind of individual attention I was able to give her. But because of one judge’s bias, this little girl who’s been through so much is living with strangers. I just hope she knows how much I love her and how determined I am to bring her home.”
Hadaway has been caring for Emma for almost a year and the child calls her “Mommy.” Their predicament came after several months of legal proceedings in which Hadaway fought to keep her. The little girl’s biological mother, who had sole custody, asked Hadaway to raise and adopt the child after struggling for years to care for her while coping with a of a variety of problems that included financial hardships and a difficult life on the road as a truck driver. With the biological mother’s blessing, Hadaway was granted legal custody in 2006. Under Hadaway’s care, the child began making great strides in her schoolwork, self-confidence and emotional well-being.
Several months later, Wilkinson County Superior Court Judge John Lee Parrott was on the verge of granting Hadaway’s request to permanently adopt Emma when he noticed in the home study that Hadaway was living at the time with her partner of seven years and abruptly changed his mind. In January of this year, Parrott denied the adoption, ordering that Emma be sent back to her biological mother. Hadaway complied and met with the biological mother at a truck stop to hand over the girl. After accepting custody, thus satisfying Parrott’s order, the biological mother saw how distraught Emma was at being taken from Hadaway and again insisted that Hadaway should raise the girl.
Hadaway, who had ended her relationship with her partner, then moved with Emma to Bibb County, where she again applied for custody with the biological mother’s full consent. Shortly after that, Parrott ordered the little girl be taken from her home to live in foster care on Feb. 20, despite the biological mother’s wishes. In early April a Bibb County judge then granted custody of the child to Hadaway, after hearing evidence from an expert commissioned by Wilkinson County DFCS to study Emma in her foster home. The expert found that the little girl is unable to get the individualized attention she needs in her foster home and is experiencing emotional trauma because of the separation from Hadaway.
In spite of all this, Parrott found Hadaway and her attorney in contempt of court, and sentenced them to jail time and a fine. During the May 2 hearing, the ACLU argued that Wilkinson County DFCS must allow Emma to return home.
“There are thousands of children in our state’s foster care system who need good homes, but this little girl already had a home where she was loved and cared for, and was torn from it for no other reason than that Elizabeth is a lesbian,” said Gerry Weber, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, who argued before the court that same morning. “DFCS’s own expert agrees that letting Emma go home is in her best interest. Elizabeth’s sexual orientation shouldn’t even enter into the decision.”
“Social science research has consistently shown for decades that children of gay parents are just as well-adjusted as children of straight parents,” said Ken Choe, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. “A judge must act in a child’s best interests. By taking Emma away from Elizabeth, despite the loving home that Elizabeth had provided for Emma, solely on account of Elizabeth’s sexual orientation, Judge Parrott did not act in Emma’s best interests.”
Hadaway is represented by Weber and Maggie Garrett of the ACLU of Georgia, Choe and James Esseks of the ACLU’s national LGBT Project, and cooperating counsel Dan Bloom of Pachman Richardson, LLC in Atlanta and Amy Waggoner of Aussenberg Waggoner, LLP in Alpharetta.