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All in the

All in the


A mother of four asking her uncle to provide temporary foster care for her children while she undergoes drug rehab should be of no concern to anyone but her and her uncle. Unless that uncle cohabits with another man and lives in Utah.

There was a time not too long ago when a typical evening in Mike Oberg and Gregg Valdez's home involved a quiet family meal in the kitchen of their comfortable residence in Salem, Utah. During the meal they'd chat about their day and ask Little Mike, Valdez's 13-year-old son, about school or skateboarding; if Valdez's 17-year-old daughter wasn't out with friends, she might join them at the table.

But that quiet evening ritual changed when Valdez's niece, Antoinette Rudman, 34, had a drug relapse in mid September and called her uncle on a Friday afternoon to ask if he'd temporarily take care of her four young children. Valdez, who works as a case manager at a local prison, immediately jumped in his car to pick them up.

Though the family still gathers for dinner every evening, now there's an excited energy at the table as the older kids chat and squabble. After dinner, the couple, who have been together for more than four years, spend most of the evening prodding the children to do their homework and to take their baths. Though Valdez calls the experience a "fun challenge," he also wryly notes that "it's not quiet anymore. And there aren't leftovers anymore."

In most states and in most cases, the agreement Rudman had made with Valdez about the care of her children wouldn't merit much attention, since the person that a parent chooses as a temporary guardian is a private matter. But an assistant attorney general representing the state's Division of Child and Family Services has argued that because Rudman was being monitored by the state for drug use, the arrangement violates a Utah state law that prohibits those cohabitating in a sexual relationship from becoming foster or adoptive parents -- a law that some critics say was designed to target gay and lesbian couples.

Following the legal challenge, the children have been allowed to remain in Valdez's custody only because of an emergency court order; a hearing scheduled for October 29 will determine whether the children will be returned to their mother, will stay with Valdez or other relatives, or will be placed elsewhere.

"The only one who is questioning all of this is the assistant attorney general," Rudman, the children's mother, told The Advocate in a recent interview. "He's the unfriendly one in all of this. He's not thinking about the children; he's thinking about the law. I chose my uncle Gregg to take my kids because he has his own two kids and he's a good person. He cares about people and he would take anyone in. I trust him."

Neither the assistant attorney general working on this case nor representatives of his office returned calls for comment. A DCFS spokesperson told The Advocate: "I don't think the department has a comment about the law; it follows the laws of the state."

Though Valdez and some legal observers are optimistic that the judge will give some form of temporary custody of Rudman's children to either Valdez or Rudman's mother, the case highlights the legal challenges that gay couples can still face when it comes to parenting and adoption.

Utah is one of three states, including Alabama and Florida, that still effectively prohibit gay men or lesbians from becoming foster or adoptive parents. The Utah law originally arose out of concerns raised by a member of a DCFS quality improvement committee who was helping to oversee the foster care system (the committee was created in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 against Utah's foster care system for shoddy performance).

"One member of the [committee] first promulgated this idea, and then they found a legislative sponsor," recalls Martha Matthews, an attorney formerly with the National Center for Youth Law who worked on the Utah class-action case. "Some legislators were horrified to discover that unmarried and cohabitating couples, particularly gay couples, were foster parents, and they prohibited them from being foster parents.

"People get self-righteous about what is the best possible home for a child, and they think about it in the abstract," she adds. "But the best home might be one where they are living with a close relative who lives near the child's school and who might happen to be cohabitating."

Critics of the law also note that there's a severe shortage of foster parents and that laws like those in Utah make it even harder for children to find quality, long-term placement. There are currently 500,000 children in foster care nationwide, and there's been a steady rise in the number of children entering foster care in recent years. Between 1984 and 1993, for example, the number of children in foster care increased by 61%, while the number of nonrelative foster parents available to care for children has been in decline, child welfare advocates say.

In Utah there are currently 2,600 children in foster care, and the Utah Foster Care Foundation, a nonprofit that works with DCFS to place children in temporary and permanent homes, says it is in need of more foster families. "The foundation's position is that we would welcome any family or individual who is willing and able to care for these children," says Kelsey Lewis, the foundation's director of recruitment. "But because of the law, there are certain segments of the population that we can't reach out to."

"States always need competent and willing foster parents, and to exclude an entire class of people based on one factor that has nothing to do with their parenting abilities leaves children to languish in placement after placement," adds Kate Kendall of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which frequently tackles legal cases involving gay and lesbian parenting. "By eliminating gay and lesbian foster parents, we're diminishing the pool of competent foster parents, and it's the kids who suffer."

Research dating to the 1980s shows that there is no difference in the well-being of children raised by gay parents in comparison to straight parents. And after reviewing nearly 70 studies on the topic, the American Psychological Association concludes, "Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents."

The Child Welfare League of America agrees. "The Child Welfare League of America affirms that lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents are as well-suited to raise children as their heterosexual counterparts," according to its official position paper on the subject.

Accordingly, Valdez and Oberg have been described as stellar parents by those who know them. "They're both very kind and loving family-oriented people," says Derek Oberg, Mike's twin brother. "The thing that's important to them is family and being around the family in their daily lives."

But for Valdez, the legal and administrative problem he's been dealing with in trying to care for his niece's children have made him think beyond his own family, and he says that no matter what happens at the October 29 court date, he'll still search for a way to challenge the Utah law.

"I don't want this to happen again with this family or another one," he says. "I think the law should allow relatives to take the kids, whether they're cohabitating or not. It's harmful for them to pull the kids out of a stable house."

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