Leader Blues

Friday, October 24, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Vote no on Act 1

From the Salem Witch Trials forward, America’s wonderful history has taught us from time to time that it is a terrible mistake to make law from narrow religious doctrine. Initiated Act 1, which is on the Arkansas ballot, will be another such mistake if voters ratify it.

The Arkansas Family Council, whose angry agenda targets gay and lesbian people for punishment, put the proposal on the ballot. It would prevent judges and child welfare people from ever allowing an unmarried couple to adopt a child or serve as custodial parents for neglected and abused children.

Denying unmarried couples the pleasure of rearing needy children is one thing. It is questionable whether they have a constitutional right under the equal-protection clause to raise children on the same basis as married couples. But punishing children is quite another matter, and that is what Initiated Act 1 would do.

The Family Council thinks that God does not like gay people or unmarried couples and doesn’t want them around children. We are not sure of God’s feelings about human sexual proclivities, but we do remember the Redeemer’s keen interest in the welfare of children.

Who has not by now had their fill of horrible news about children left in the state’s care by abusive, neglectful or absent parents? More than 3,700 are in the state’s custody on any given day but there are so few ready and able parents to take custody of them that only about 1,100 are in foster homes. The rest are warehoused in group homes and shuttled from one unhappy place to another. Every few months, a death or a prosecution for severe abuse is reported. Arkansas has one of the highest rates of transfer of these poor children in the country.

Initiated Act 1 would perpetuate the situation and make it even worse by rigidly restricting the ability of judges to find the best home for the children.

This all started with a foster-care board appointed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee. It adopted the Family Council’s agenda of eliminating gay couples from serving as foster parents even if there was no better option or any other option at all. The Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously struck down the rule but the Department of Human Services has kept it in practice and expanded it to bar any couple that is not legally married for whatever reason — until last week. Child-welfare officials, pediatricians, social workers and others pleaded with the department to end the practice so that more sorrowful children could get into caring homes. Gov. Beebe finally had enough. He let the department know that its only standard should be what is best for the children.

But if Initiated Act 1 passes, those narrow restrictions will be the law again.

Thirteen retired judges, including three former chief justices, signed a statement opposing Act 1. They had had to deal personally with the heart-rending cases of these unhappy children, for whom the chances of having a loving home are so sparse and growing ever sparser.

Here is what the judges wrote: “The choices available to neglected and abused children and to the judges who must find homes for them are already tragically limited by the children’s circumstances. Instead of imposing a blanket rule that would apply to every case, the needs of these children and the best means of satisfying their needs, should be left to elected judges to decide on a case-by-case basis.”

The state ought to do more for these children, but at the moment defeating Initiated Act 1, as the judges suggested, is the best we can we do for them.