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Women’s Bar CLE helps attorneys understand the complexities of adoption issues

April 18, 2019 Rob Abruzzese

The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association (BWBA) hosted a continuing legal education discussion that was sponsored by the Diversity Committee of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY) entitled, “Handling Adversity in the Many Faces of Adoption.” in Brooklyn Heights on Thursday.

“This is a discussion about visible adoptions in both a historical and present day context with an adoption attorney, an adoptive parent and a member of the court system,” said Carrie Anne Cavallo, president of the BWBA.

Those three perspectives included John Coffey, the co-chair of the Diversity Committee at WBASNY, as the adoptive parent; Matthew Skinner, executive director of the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission of the New York Courts, providing the court’s perspective; and Jeanine Castagna providing expertise as an adoption attorney working in private practice.

Coffey, who participated but also served as a moderator for the event, explained that this is an issue that became important to him after he and his husband adopted their son in 2015. Adoption is already a complicated issue and for LGBTQ families, he explained, it can often be more complicated.

“We were immediately faced with a number of important decisions dealing with his adoption that a heterosexual couple would not have had to deal with,” said Coffey, who explained that at the time his marriage to his husband was not recognized in the state of Ohio, where their son was born. “The first thing we had to do was to decide what jurisdiction we had to do the adoption.”

Carrie Anne Cavallo is nearing the end of her one-year term as president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association and is trying to enjoy hosting duties during her final few events.

Some of the issues that Coffey dealt with were alleviated when the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges extended the right for same-sex couples to get married throughout the United States. However, many still remain and through continuing legal education, Coffey is helping lawyers to unite same-sex couples with adoptive children.

As Skinner explained, adoption for gay couples has always been intertwined with recognition of marriage rights. It’s partly the reason why the legislature has been unable to pass adoption laws with LGBTQ families in mind.

“The primary actor in reform of the law in this area has been the State Court of Appeals,” Skinner said. “Adoption is born purely out of statutes. It’s not a common law issue. If you have read through the cases, you’ll see that their first and main concern is what does the statute.

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“The way this has worked out has really been through the courts and specifically the Court of Appeals interpreting and reinterpreting the adoption statute,” he continued. “It’s Article 7 in the Domestic Relations Laws where all of the statutory provisions for adoption in New York are found.”

Skinner went through the history of gay adoption, which largely started with the Matter of Robert Paul P, a 1984 case from the Court of Appeals. In his discussion, he explained how a series of court cases brought us to where the law is today.

A big issue today, Skinner explained, is that even though all states in the U.S. recognize same-sex marriages, states are interpreting the marriage presumption differently. As a result, he said, second-parent adoption is still necessary for same-sex couples.

“Today, most of the folks who do gay family law, if you want something ironclad in case of a breakup, in case you move to the most unfavorable jurisdiction in the country for whatever reason, second parent adoption is still the gold standard in this area even if both parents are on the birth certificate,” Skinner said.

Castagna, whose firm only handles adoption cases, expertly explained the law and what lawyers should expect throughout adoption proceedings. She also explained some of realities in visible adoptions such as the simple fact that social media makes it harder for people to be anonymous.

“When your child looks nothing at all like you, people out in the world feel very comfortable asking, ‘Where’d you get that baby?’ ‘How’d you get that baby?’ ‘Is that baby yours?’ ‘Is that your biological child?’” Castagna said. “For some reason it encourages people to ask really stupid and intrusive questions and it’s something I have to warn my clients about.”

The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association will host its next CLE on the recent Raise the Age law which no longer allows 16 and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults in New York state. Hon. Edwina G. Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives, and Hon. Craig Walker, presiding justice of the Youth Court, will host the discussion that takes place at 6 p.m. at the Brooklyn Bar Association on April 22.

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