1984. Boston Globe campaign brings gay/lesbian foster ban

BostonGlobeDavid Jean and Donald Babets are two professional men who had been in a long-term relationship in early 1984. They decided they wanted to become foster parents and, in accordance with local procedure in Boston, Massachusetts, contacted their local Department of Social Services.

The Department undertook an extensive evaluation of the couple.They interviewed them repeatedly, made repeated home visits and investigated their standing and reputations both at work and in the community. They even got letters of recommendation from Donald’s priest and David’s minister.

All of this took twice as long as their usual screening procedure but the couple still came through with flying colours. Shortly afterwards, in April 1984, two young boys – aged 3 and 2 – were placed in their care, with the written approval of the boys birth mother.

But on May 8th, the Boston Globe ran the headline ‘Some Oppose Foster Placement with Gay Couple’ on the front page of its Metro section. In preparing the story, the paper had informed neighbours and community leaders about the placement and sought their reactions. The paper must also have advised the couple of their intention to publish the story because their reporter, Kenneth Cooper, subsequently commented:

“Babets suggested to me that if I did the story the kids would be taken out of the home. I wasn’t persuaded of that. He was.”

And Babets was right. On the morning the story was published the couple was contacted by Social Services Commissioner, Marie Matava, to reassure them that the children would not be taken from the home.

In the afternoon, Department officials removed the children from the home.

The Boston Globe obviously felt it was a great victory and ran stories on the subject almost daily for some weeks afterwards. This included an editorial that bleated:

“The state’s foster care programme is not a place for experimentation with non-traditional family settings. It should never be used, knowingly or unknowningly, as the means by which homosexuals who do not have children of their own…are enabled to acquire the trappings of traditional families.”

If David and Donald were expecting any support from their state politicians they were to be sorely disappointed. State Governor Michael Dukakis denied all knowledge of the state making child placements with gay foster parents. This was patently untrue: the use of gay and lesbian foster parents had been acknowledged in a report that he himself had commissioned from the state’s Department of Public Welfare in 1976.

Even the Social Services Commissioner had denied any knowledge, even though she’d telephoned the couple to support them on May 8th.

On May 14th the state’s House of Representatives passed a resolution directing the Department of Social Services to “place children in need of foster care exclusively in the care of those persons whose sexual orientation presents no threat to the well-being of the child”.

Possibly realising that such wording might require them to prove that a person’s sexual orientation did actually present a threat, they passed a second resolution a week later. On this occasion it called for a ban on lesbian and gay fostering, adoption, guardianship, family day care and respite care.

The following day the Secretary of Human Services, Philip Johnston announced the state’s new policy on adoption. It set out the following priorities for child placement:

  1. Placement in the child’s own home
  2. Placement in family foster care with relatives
  3. Placement in family foster care with a married couple, preferably with parenting experience and time available for parenting.
  4. Placement in family foster care with a person without parenting experience and preferably with time available for parenting.
  5. Placement in community residential care.

“Non-traditional” placements – single people and same-sex couples – were to be considered only if it could be clearly demonstrated that there was absolutely no other option for the child. It would also be necessary for them to be approved directly by the Department of Social Services Commissioner.

And, just for good measure, all future applicants would be required to answer a question about their sexual orientation.

At a press conference announcing the new policy Johnston admitted that it was “highly unlikely” that there would be any future placements with gay and lesbian foster parents. He added that David and Donald “would not have been approved as foster parents under the new policy”.

The measures were roundly condemned by every agency and organisation involved in child care as well as professionals and professional bodies like the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, the North East Council of Child Protection and the National Association of Social Workers. And the Deputy Commissioner of Social Services resigned in protest.

This didn’t stop Governor Dukakis and the Social Services Department insisting that the new policy was based on recommendations from child welfare experts. And the Boston Globe continued to pat itself on the back for instigating these measures.

In May 1985 they printed a ‘one-year anniversary’ editorial stating:

“One year ago, the Department of Social Services removed two young boys from the home of the two homosexual men who were serving as foster parents. As difficult as that might have been to envision, the incident had produced major benefits for foster children.”

Unsurprisingly, no such benefits existed: quite the opposite.

In the same month as this self-glorifying editorial, Social Services Commissioner Marie Matava admitted the state needed 25% more homes to meet demand. In December 85, the report of the State Legislative Sub-committee on Foster Care found that 750 children were in inappropriate or emergency accommodation. They also found that 50-58% of state and private placement agencies had significant waiting lists.

And there were other consequences too. The Reverend Kathryn Piccard, who had been a foster parent for 6 years and cared for 17 children in that time, was removed from the list of approved applicants after she refused to answer the sexual orientation question prior to being approved for the 18th child.

Nor were there any further placements of children with gay or lesbian households.

In January 1986 David and Donald joined other plaintiffs in a suit against Governor Michael Dukakis and the Department of Social Services claiming the new policy:

“…created an arbitrary and irrational presumption that all unmarried couples and single persons, even those with parenting experience, are always less suitable as foster parents than married couples (even those without parenting experience).”

In the course of the proceedings the state tried to have the case thrown out of court then tried to block a request for access to documents relating to David and Donald’s case. They were unsuccessful on both counts.

To no one’s surprise, the documents revealed that the children had been taken away from David and Donald purely for political reasons: no expert opinion was ever sought. It also became apparent that the Department had stopped subjecting single heterosexual applicants to the specific Commissioner review that was still required for gay and lesbian applicants.

At no point did Michael Dukakis ever change his position that heterosexual couples were the “normal” and therefore most appropriate option – even during his 1988 US Presidential campaign.  And so the battle dragged on until 1990, when both parties agreed to compromise rather than face years of ongoing argument.

The policy was amended so that the third and fourth priorities for adoption now read:

  • Placement in family foster care with a married couple with parenting experience and with time available for parenting or with a person with parenting experience and with time available for parenting.
  • Placement in family foster care with a married couple without parenting experience and with time available for parenting or with a person without parenting experience and with time available.

The key element of this revision was that it put the decision back into the hands of caseworkers and out of the hands of politically-motivated officials.

The revised policy came into effect in May 1990. It had taken six years to undo most of the damage inflicted by the Boston Globe‘s irresponsible rabble-rousing.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This post has been informed largely by the book ‘Lesbians and Gay Men as Foster Parents’ by Wendell Ricketts




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One Response to 1984. Boston Globe campaign brings gay/lesbian foster ban

  1. Pingback: 1980s. With friends like Michael Dukakis… | Gay in the 80's: LGBT History

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