Orlando – An Orlando mom was granted one of the first same-sex, stepparent adoption rights in Central Florida to her wife’s biological children at the Orange County Courthouse June 16.
Newlyweds Jennifer Schneider and Sarah Ratzlaff have been together as a family for eight years and have two children, 3-year-old daughter Avery and 15-month-old son Jackson. While Ratzlaff is their biological mom, Schneider has been a parent to the kids since day one.
“Last year I could only apply for a second parent adoption, as though I wasn’t there from the beginning,” said Schneider. “A $3,000 second parent adoption required a $1,500 home study, where people came to our house to see if I was a fit parent for my own children, and I still didn’t have full parental rights. It makes me sad others have to go through it.”
Adoption laws have changed since marriage equality came to Florida in January. Governor Rick Scott signed the adoption bill June 11 and married same-sex parents can now file for a step-parent adoption, which is half the cost and requires no home study.
“It’s funny, people think gay married couples are going to get married and adopt all these kids from other places,” Schneider said. “What they don’t realize is that lots of us just want to adopt our own kids.”
A step-parent adoption also grants full legal rights to the parents, such as having their names on their children’s birth certificate, something that was important to the family.
“In our minds we look and feel just like any other family with two small children,” said Schneider. “We had never felt discriminated against until last year, when we met with a new tax accountant. While reviewing our file she noticed I filed as head of household and claimed our daughter Avery. She told me I wouldn’t be able to claim her, ‘because she really wasn’t mine.’ With a quiver in my lips and tears welling in my eyes I told her she has my last name, which is when she asked if I was on her birth certificate. I told her no, I did not have that right.”
Since adoption rights are only granted if the couple is married, Schneider and Ratzlaff decided to get legally married at the courthouse in April despite a wedding they have planned in the fall.
“We wanted to do whatever was necessary now to get the rights that are so desperately needed for us as a family to protect our children and ourselves in case of an emergency,” said Schneider. “If something happened to Sarah, our children would not be allowed to stay with me.”
Representing the Ratzlaff-Schneider family was attorney Ashley Filimon, a mother of adopted children that is a voice for families seeking adoption.
“This is one of the first cases in the state for marriage equality step-parent rights,” said Filimon. “I’m sure there will many more after. We need to embrace equality as a culture, especially for family purposes.”
The hearing at the Orange County Courthouse was short and tears were shed by the couple as Judge Heather Pinder-Rodriguez announced her decision.
“This is the most important thing I’m doing today,” Pinder-Rodriguez said.
The adoption was finalized and the close-knit family of four emerged from the courthouse as a legal family on paper.
“I’m really happy, but I have mixed emotions,” said Ratzlaff. “We shouldn’t have had to do this, we should have had these rights from the beginning. I’m just overjoyed we can now move forward.”
“It’s a validation of relationships,” said Schneider. “You don’t really know what freedom tastes like until you’re free. It’s overwhelming to finally have this after the heartbreak of not having rights, and we want to spread the word and let other families know they can have this too.”