Backers of a proposed initiated act to ban unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children say it mirrors state policy already in effect on placement of foster children, but the agency overseeing child welfare said it would go even further.

Backers of a proposed initiated act to ban unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children say it mirrors state policy already in effect on placement of foster children, but the agency overseeing child welfare said it would go even further.
The proposed initiated act, aimed at barring gays and lesbians from adopting or fostering children, would take away a little-used power the state has to allow unmarried couples living together to become foster parents. State policy since 2005 has barred placing foster children with unmarried couples living together.
Julie Munsell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said the proposed ban regarding foster parents would be even more restrictive by taking away the state's ability to issue waivers to parents on a case-by-case basis.
"If someone felt like they were in a situation that they could justify the stability issue or they could prove stability in the home, they could request a waiver for that rule," Munsell said.
If the ban is approved by voters in November, the cohabitation restriction would join other restrictions on foster care that cannot be waived by the agency or the Child Welfare Licensing Agency Review Board. They include restrictions banning anyone who has been convicted of felonies on crimes including child abuse, spousal abuse, crimes against children or violent crimes such as rape or murder.
The state, however, would still have the ability to grant waivers on other restrictions that aren't spelled out by statute, such as age of potential foster parents or size of a household.
Munsell said the agency doesn't track how many waivers are granted from standards, but said officials with the agency couldn't remember one being requested or granted from the unmarried couples restriction within the past two years.
Secretary of State Charlie Daniels on Monday approved the proposed initiated act for the Nov. 4 ballot after verifying that the Arkansas Family Council Action Committee had turned in enough valid signatures from registered voters.
The Family Council campaign is a response to a 2006 Arkansas Supreme Court decision striking down a state policy that specifically banned gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents.
The Family Council has acknowledged that the proposal goes a step further with its restriction on adoptions, but has maintained that it puts into law the state's practice on foster children.
Jerry Cox, the council's president, said he believes that's still the case and cited the fact that the state can't name any unmarried couples who have been allowed to foster children.
Cox said he's comfortable with the state not allowing such waivers instead of leaving the decision up to child-welfare officials.
"If you follow that line of reasoning, at some point you end up with no laws and everything is left up to the discretion of the social worker," Cox said. "I don't believe we want to do business that way in Arkansas."
Debbie Willhite, lead consultant for Arkansas Families First, a group that opposes the proposed initiative, said the elimination of the waiver is an example of how the act would, if approved by voters, take away the state's ability to make decisions based on the best interest of a child. Arkansas Families First has campaigned against the proposal and Willhite said the group plans to challenge it in court.
"If it's helped one child be placed in the home, it's worth having the ability to have it," Willhite said. "If it's a tool that's only used when there are special circumstances, why limit that ability?"
The Family Council last year backed legislation that would have specifically banned gays and lesbians, as well as unmarried couples living together, from adopting or fostering children. During the legislative session in 2007, the state Senate voted to pass the ban but the plan failed in a House committee after Gov. Mike Beebe said the measure had constitutional problems.