Jewish Family Services a Tennessee pioneer in LGBT adoption
Fifteen years ago openly gay people in Tennessee had to look out of state for adoption services. That all began to change in 2002, thanks to the courage of one agency, Jewish Family Services of Nashville and Middle Tennessee (JFS), when they received a phone call from a man trying to adopt as an openly gay person.
JFS Executive Director Pam Kelner explained that, after two years of struggling with other agencies, “He and one of our adoption caseworkers, Teri Sogol, met, talked, and she had the home study completed and this man approved to adopt within two months…” The agency worried it might not find a child to place with him, but Teri had a prospective birthmother and risked posing “a question she had never asked before: Would you consider a gay man?” The prospective mother reportedly said, “My only concern would be that he will spoil the child. I have relatives who are gay, and they spoil all the children in the family!”
This was just the beginning for JFS. “In 2005,” Kelner recalled, “Judge Marietta Shipley called us to ask if we would do the first home study in Tennessee for second parent adoption.” Second parent adoption allows same-sex couples to adopt their partner's biological or adopted children without terminating the first parent's parental right. It protects both parents by giving both of them legally recognized parental status. “Without hesitation we said ‘Yes!’ She had called every agency in Nashville and again, we were the only agency to say yes.”
Since then, JFS has overseen thirty-five LGBT first adoptions. Additionally, their home studies for second parent adoption have provided security and stability to eighty-seven children who, in the event something happens to their biological or originally adopting parent, will still have a legal relationship with the only other parent they have ever known.
For Kelner, what’s even more important than these impressive numbers is the care JFS provides its clients: “It is not the quantitative that makes me proud. It is the qualitative…. Our clients speak of the way we treat members of the LGBT community—with dignity, respect, and openness, as potential parents like all others, wanting to create loving families with a partner or as single people.”
The organization has enthusiastically advocated for gay marriage rights at the state level as well. “In 2005, Teri testified as an adoption professional before the Children and Family Affairs Committee of the State House of Representatives against the dangerous bill to ban gay adoption in Tennessee,” Kelner said. “In 2010, I expressed to multiple state legislators JFS’s strong opposition to another potential bill to ban gay adoption in Tennessee. And if this bill should rear its ugly head again, we will be there again to help defeat it.”
Very few of JFS’s LGBT clients are Jewish. JFS Board Member Stan Schklar said, “JFS supports LGBT adoption rights because Jews remember what it was like to face that kind of discrimination. There was a time when no one would help Jews adopt without a pledge to raise the child in a particular non-Jewish faith. So we stand against this discrimination too.”
While JFS is no longer the only agency in Middle Tennessee to handle LGBT adoption, they still do the vast majority, and LGBT adoption accounts for over half of all of JFS’s adoptions. Until recently, JFS bore the full cost of providing this service to LGBT couples, but funding cuts have led them to reach out to the LGBT community for support. This year, JFS will again be hosting a large house-party fundraiser to increase awareness of their services and their need for support among the LGBT community.
Praise from those who've received support from JFS:
I cannot say enough about JFS. They helped us become a family. We weren't sure where to go first and when we called, we were immediately put at ease. We had found the right place. As we began our overwhelming journey toward parenthood, we were supported along the way by JFS. When we adopted our son, it changed our lives. He is a dream come true in so many ways. Almost four years later, Teri is still a part of our lives as a resource and a support. Thank you for helping us become a family.
S.E. and D.K.
Our treatment by JFS not only helped us to cross the technical hurdles that were necessary for us to become legal co parents, but also gave us hope for a world that might recognize us as parents rather than gay parents.
JFS helped make my dream of becoming a parent a reality. From beginning to end, they provided skillful and compassionate guidance through the long and emotional adoption journey. I have referred many other families to them, and I remain forever grateful and blessed for the work they do in the LGBT community.
For more information about JFS’s adoption program and how you can help, visit http://jfsnashville.org/services/adoption-journeys/