Six same-sex couples are suing the state of North Carolina and Durham and Guilford county court officials as they seek to overturn the state Supreme Court’s 2010 ban on second-parent adoptions and the state’s prohibition on gay marriage.
They are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation.
The second-parent adoption case, Fisher-Borne v. Smith, was filed in Greensboro last year and amended this summer to include a challenge to the gay marriage ban.
Here, the families speak about their lives and the lawsuit.
Terri Beck, 50, is from Morrisville and works as a recruiter for Duke University. Four years ago she and her partner of 16 years, Leslie Zanaglio, adopted two brothers through the foster care system.
BECK: The two things that have kept Leslie and I together, and the key to our success, is our ability to communicate with each other and our sense of humor. We both have the same basic core values. Family comes first for us.
Our boys had a very, very difficult first few years of their lives. They came from a severely neglectful, abusive early childhood. When they came to us, my younger son, who was 6, didn’t know how to chew. They needed the love and nurturing that Leslie and I felt, and feel today that can provide for them and have provided for them. In the four years they’ve been with us, they’ve been thriving in amazing ways.
I have no legal rights as their mom. In every other way, I’m their mom. To them, I’m their mom. So it was important for us to formally ask the courts through this lawsuit to recognize our family.
Leigh Smith, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, and her partner, Crystal Hendrix, 41, an elementary school librarian, have two children, Quinn, 3 ½, and Joe, 18 months.
They met at a school where Smith was a kindergarten teacher and Hendrix, a librarian.
HENDRIX: There was a real instant friendship, and just that constant wanting to be around each other. I just loved the way Leigh interacted with her kids at school and the way she treated them all just like they were her own.
After Quinn was born, we knew we wanted to have another one. I was getting older, so we ended up having them closer together. Not quite two years between them.
SMITH: Second-parent adoption is very important to me because I did not have the [parental rights], that if something were to happen to Crystal, they would remain with me. And because she has a conservative family, we have that fear, always, that if something were to happen, that they could go to live with someone that they don’t know.
HENDRIX: My parents don’t recognize Leigh as the children’s mother, and they don’t recognize us as a couple. I have a very strained relationship with them, but if something were to happen to me, there is a possibility that my parents can end up raising our kids. That’s not the way things should be. We felt it was our responsibility to our kids and to our relationship, but also to other families who were in similar situations.
SMITH: We want them to know that we’re a family unit, and marriage does that. It pulls everyone and everything together.
Dana Draa, 42, works at the VA with blind and visually impaired veterans. She is a veteran. Lee Knight Caffery, 38, is an attorney. They have two children. They held a commitment ceremony in 2007.
DRAA: I had always wanted children, but I never thought about having them myself. I was always going to adopt. Finally, I decided to have the children. One of the unique things about us, because we have donor-conceived children, Miller and Margot are actual full brother and sister.
I can tell you that being the non-birth mother, it’s a scary prospect. It’s something I felt passionate about in the sense of protection for the children. I wanted to make sure that if anything happened to Lee Knightnow, I have a great relationship with her family, but not having legal protections, you know, all bets are off. I really needed to do this to say that I had done all that I could do for not just my family but for other families like ours.
KNIGHT CAFFERY: I echo Dana’s sentiments about making sure our family remains cohesive no matter what, but in the event that something very unlikely happened to me, my worst fear is that our children would be torn apart and taken away from her, and she’s the only other parent they’ve ever known. Because I’m an attorney, I understand the significance of the legal arguments in discrimination and I always felt like this is part of my calling, to do legal advocacy work on the part of the gay and lesbian community.
I have always thought that sometime in our lifetime we would be able to be married. But I always thought we might be walking down the aisles in walkers or a wheelchair, and that our children would be long grown. And now I can see that it’s a real possibility that we might be able to be a loving, real, legally recognized family long before that time.
Chantelle Fisher-Borne, 38, works as a consultant with nonprofits and charitable foundations. Her partner, Marcie Fisher-Borne, 38, is an assistant professor and teaches social work. They have been together 16 years and had a wedding in 2003. They are the parents of a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old.
MARCIE FISHER-BORNE: This amendment changes things, and will change things for more people in this state, if it has the outcome that we want. It’s about my love for Chantelle, which has always been there. It’s about my love for my children. And it’s about an opportunity to do this for folks who can’t. I know some folks who don’t feel like they can be public for fear of their job, and for other reasons.
CHANTELLE FISHER-BORNE: Yeah, I think the irony of our situation is one of us each gave birth to our kids. I’m no less a parent to my Miley as I am to her Eli, and Marcie is no less a parent to Eli as she is to my Miley. We know that. Our kids know that. What we are requesting is that the state acknowledge our relationships, as being a legal stranger to your own kids is unconscionable.
Shawn Long, 43, is an office manager at a nonprofit. His partner, Craig Johnson, 46, is a clinical program assistant at a pharmaceutical company. They have a son, Isaiah.
They met several years ago through the INDY‘s personal ads.
LONG: Initially, I was opposed to having kids. Craig was open to kids, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. Over the course of many years, he wore me down until finally he was like, “All right, we’re gonna look at getting a kid!” And it was great. I was a fool for waiting this long.
JOHNSON: Isaiah comes from the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services. We initially were matched with him, and we thought, “OK, yeah, sounds interesting, sounds possible.” He was 5 when we met him. We spent a weekend in Cabarrus County with him and took him back to his family.
LONG: We took him to Discovery Place in Charlottegreat!
JOHNSON: We felt like this is a really good match. He gets along really well with us; we get along well with him. So we did another weekend and he stayed with us for a weekend in our house. He stayed one more weekend with us and we thought, “Yes, we’re ready to go. This is the right decision.”
The result was fantastic. Isaiah has multiple times asked about getting a sibling. We’re very reluctant to do that because this match was so good. I’m really afraid that if we were to try that process again that we would not have such a positive experience.
LONG: He had a biological sister, but she was not in the foster care system, so we weren’t able to find her and adopt her, which we initially wanted to do.
We both want to be parents to him. We were both foster parents. Craig is his adoptive parent; suddenly I’m nothing. Anytime we go anywhere, I have to have paperwork. If something happens, I have to worry about, “Do I have the paperwork? What will people say? Will there be some kind of challenge?”
And Isaiah has asked before, “When are you getting married? Can you get married yet? What does this mean, you’re not married? Are you still with my dad?”
We’re both his parents, we both take him to soccer, we take him to the doctor, we send him up to his room. He should be supported with all the rights and responsibilities that come with having a two-parent family.
Shana Carignan, 30, works for a local HIV/AIDS nonprofit, and Megan Parker, 34, is a stay-at-home mom. They met five years ago. They have a son, Jax, who has special needs.
CARIGNAN: We really liked each other, and there was no denying it, so once we started dating, it was pretty obvious that we were falling in love.
PARKER: It was interesting because at the time, I cared for an older lady, Mary, with disabilities in my home. She lived there and I was her sole care provider, so she was always around. [Mary’s] cognitive issues made her about the age range of between 5 and 7.
CARIGNAN: We just had a great rapport. We were always laughing together, the three of us. So, it was like a ready-made family, because we started spending so much time together, and then I ended up helping take care of Mary. Once our relationship progressed, we thought, “Well, we both want kids. We really like doing this together, we’re both good at it, what’s holding us back?”
PARKER: We knew we wanted to adopt, but when a special needs case came in, we knew we could do it. We had already seen Mary as an adult, so we had seen what it looked like further down the road.
CARIGNAN: And we saw what life she didn’t have. Because she didn’t have the resources and the parents that were really going to take care of her. Every day Jax amazes us, because he constantly is proving to the world that he can do more than anybody ever thought he could. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of that, to know we help parent this amazing kid, who has this awesome personality, this smart brain, begging to get out and be noticed by the world, and we helped him find that.
PARKER: Marriage equality, as well as second-parent adoption, would mean an equal playing field for our family. There’s so much that’s just denied to us, when we’re just a regular family. By our marriage being legally recognized, it would just make things so much easier. And we have to do everything we can to protect everything that we’ve worked for and we live for.
CARIGNAN: Since Jax has special needs, we had to go to doctors and stay overnight in hospital visits, and because Megan is his only legal parent, I don’t have the same rights, so I wasn’t allowed to stay overnight with him.
I can’t receive Shana’s benefits because her job doesn’t offer them to same-sex partners, but they do offer them to a married spouse. And Jax cannot receive medical benefits. He has federal Medicaid because he was adopted through foster care, but he can’t receive secondary insurance, which would be a huge benefit, because Medicaid will often deny things that secondary insurance can pick up. He can’t receive that because she’s not his legal parent. We ended up becoming advocates just by telling our story.
Transcription by David Lorimer.
Corrections: The Fisher-Borne’s daughter’s name is Miley (not Ellein). The Caffery-Draa’s daughter’s name is spelled Margot (not Margo). Leigh Smith’s and Shana Carignan’s names were misspelled on second references.
This article appeared in print with the headline “We are family.”