When Rebecca Bledsoe found out the child-welfare agency she works for had just placed a foster child in the home of a lesbian and her partner, she ordered the child removed. Her reasoning: Homosexual conduct is illegal in Texas, and foster children should never be placed into a home where there is criminal behavior.
Within days, Mrs. Bledsoe was overruled by her superiors at Child Protective Services. She was later demoted for failing to follow proper procedures. The baby was returned to the lesbian couple.
"If a child is to be removed from an approved foster home, there needs to be an emergency - the risk of immediate harm to the child," says Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services at the agency's headquarters in Austin. "That did not occur here."
The ensuing furor over Bledsoe's actions has cast an unusual spotlight on the adoption process, in part because the case involves two of the most difficult social issues in America today - the pace of adoption of foster children and the rights of homosexuals to be parents. It also comes just after President Clinton signed a new law that encourages states to speed up the adoption of foster children.
The Texas case shows how public policy and community moral codes can clash, but at its core it raises a question worthy of King Solomon: What is the best thing for the child?
For Texas: 'Don't ask, don't tell'
Some 20 states, including New Jersey, California, Vermont, Washington, and Massachusetts, have granted joint custody to gay couples.
Only two states, New Hampshire and Florida, specifically forbid adoption by gay and lesbian couples.
Texas, for its part, does not allow adoption by unmarried couples, but it will allow unmarried individuals to adopt, and some state workers encourage live-in partners to take part in parenting classes. The state does not inquire about sexual orientation.
If Bledsoe gets her way, all that will change. She has begun sending letters in her free time to state lawmakers, asking them to change state laws to forbid gay adoptions.
"I don't think we have a consistent policy," says Bledsoe, who describes herself as a conservative Christian. "If unmarried heterosexual couples can't adopt a foster child, why can homosexual couples?"
Because there is no specific policy on gay adoptions, one case worker chose to license the lesbian as a foster parent and neglected to tell co-workers about the relationship. "When I asked her about it, she said, 'Oh, they have an intimate relationship - I forgot to mention it,' " Bledsoe recalls.
Father figure crucial?
"We have much better options for this child," she says. Furthermore, "we have a tradition that a child needs a father. How does a child learn about how a man treats a woman and how a woman treats a man if there isn't a man in the house?"
While no legislator has promised a bill to ban gay adoption thus far, Bledsoe's proposal has brought huzzahs from conservatives in a state where recent polls have shown wide disapproval of homosexuality.
"Texas by and large has a conservative atmosphere, and I would imagine the majority would be inclined to block adoption by homosexuals," says Rep. Will Hartnett, a Republican legislator from Dallas. "I would certainly vote for that bill."
Gay activists and many civil libertarians see Bledsoe's campaign in a less-positive light.
"Texas, like many other states, has all kinds of laws that legislate morality," says Michael Adams of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "The most important issue here is what's in the best interest of the child. It is in the best interest to allow a qualified lesbian to adopt a child," he says. "Otherwise, thousands of foster children will languish" in the system, especially those who are difficult to place, such as children diagnosed with AIDS or those born with drugs in their system.
Some activists note that Texas' anti-sodomy laws have been found unconstitutional by lower courts - and that even though they remain on the books, they are rarely enforced.
"Parenting is such a basic right," says Diane Hardy-Garcia of the Austin-based Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "Every study shows that gay parents are no better and no worse than heterosexual parents. It's not as if we're asking for anything different than what everyone else has."
But in some ways, the argument may be moot. In recent weeks, the child's uncle and aunt in Chicago have applied for custody of the young boy, who was taken away from his mother at birth when cocaine was found in his system.
Relatives are generally given priority in adoption cases, and the uncle and aunt have already adopted two other children of the child's mother, who is serving a prison term in Texas.
For Bledsoe, an adoption by relatives would be the best of all solutions. "If this child is with his relatives, and we know that the parent is unable to care for him, then I would be very happy," she says. Since the relatives already have custody of the child's two sisters, "I shouldn't imagine there would be a reason why they wouldn't get the child."