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Tarina and Tracy Golly at their home in Inverness, Fla., on Sunday, April 16, 2020. (Justin Bright/Fresh Take Florida)

Floridians Allowed Felons To Vote But Adoptions May Not Come Easy

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Tracy and Tarina Golly have overcome obstacles to build a life together in the central Florida town of Inverness. They’ve been together 13 years and now, they are ready to start a family.

Tracy works as a hairdresser; Tarina picks up odd jobs, part-time, when she can.

The couple would love to either foster or adopt a child, perhaps a neglected or troubled boy or girl in need of a loving home. Tracy and Tarina know the importance of a supportive family.  They have certainly had their share of life’s blunders.

Everything seems in place for the Gollys to welcome a child. There’s just one problem: Tracy and Tarina are convicted felons.

If they can vote, can they adopt?

The Gollys’ dilemma is part of an ongoing, national debate about the rights of former felons.

Many Americans say felons like the Gollys have served their time and deserve reintegration into society. Others who oppose a restoration of rights argue that people who committed crimes should not be afforded the same rights and privileges of law-abiding citizens.

The issue has taken center stage in Florida after the state passed a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million former felons. Critics tried to restrict those rights by requiring felons to settle their fines before they could cast a ballot, a move that an appeals court subsequently shot down.

So, the question is now: If former felons can cast a ballot, should they be allowed to foster or adopt a child?

Here in Florida, the law can bar a person with a criminal record from fostering or adopting, depending on the circumstances. But it isn’t a clear “yes” or “no” for every case.

Loosening adoption restrictions could help remedy another problem: Finding homes for orphaned children.

At of the end of March 2020, about 23,000 children and young adults were in the state’s “Out-of-Home Care,” according to data from the Florida Department of Children and Families. Of those, 37.93%, or about 8,700 kids and youths, were in licensed-foster care and 7.25%, or about 1,600, were in group care.

About 37% of these children were placed with approved relatives and 12.42%, with non-relatives. The rest were at residential treatment centers or places categorized as “other.”

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional strain on the foster system. Preventative measures against the virus have shut down many courts nationwide, suspended family visits and could worsen domestic violence and abuse, according to The Marshall Project, a non-profit journalism organization. In New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services said it is “aggressively” looking for places for foster children to live during this time.

Beyond the pandemic, the system could soon face another roadblock. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether a private Catholic adoption agency can be excluded from the foster system because it refuses to place children with same-sex couples. A favorable ruling could bode ill for couples like the Gollys.

The Gollys fully own who they are: a lesbian couple with a criminal record. As such, they know they have to be willing to endure court hearings and background checks to get custody of a child. They also realize there are costs associated with the process and now, the shelter-at-home orders during the pandemic have put a strain on their income.

“We don’t care about the state giving us money,” Tracy says. “I’m gonna make money. I’m gonna take care of my household. We want a child.”

Tracy’s felony charges, incurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, include forgery, theft and drug possession, according to court records. Tarina’s felony charges, in the 2000s, include battery, driving with a suspended license and theft, according to court records.

Tracy and Tarina are open about their past. They believe their time behind bars helped them mature and learn from their mistakes.

“Yes, we have charges, but they weren’t charges against children,” Tracy says.

The two met in 2007 at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Florida. Tarina said she was released in 2009; Tracy said she got out in 2012.

They wed in 2015 at 12:01 a.m. on January 6, a literal minute after Florida legalized gay marriage. They said they’re the first officiated same-sex couple in Florida. It’s Tracy’s favorite fun fact.

Tracy and Tarina, 48 and 35 respectively, say they have stayed out of prison since. Their past, they said, doesn’t define their present. Their wrongs don’t define their character.

A long and tedious process

Only a handful of Florida Statutes deal specifically with criminal charges and the protection of children.

Chapter 63 allows the state to provide “stable and permanent homes for adoptive children,” especially in terms of medical, financial and social needs. Chapter 39 works to ensure the safety, care and protection of children. It essentially reads that any person who committed a violent crime or anything involving a child is barred from adopting.

A child may not be placed with a person – other than a parent – if he or she has been convicted of felonies such as assault, battery or a drug-related offense within the last five years, the law states. But it also states that the department will look at the entirety of a person’s criminal record to determine if a child will be safe in his or her care.

The law allows a convicted felon who has been denied to take the matter to court. But it is up to the felon to provide evidence that he or she is fully rehabilitated, explain when and why the crime happened and more.

In short, he or she must provide “evidence or circumstances indicating that the person will not present a danger to the child if the placement of the child is allowed.”

The Department of Children and Families’community-based care lead agencies are responsible for background screenings for individuals interested in adopting or fostering, according to an email sent to Fresh Take Florida.

The agency said it could not make anyone available for a phone interview on this matter but in the email, it said: “If a former felon requests an exemption, it is assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

The agency did not provide answers to other questions.

Fighting for the right to adopt or foster can be a long, tedious and, ultimately, an unsuccessful process for former felons. But some advocates believe the need for homes for unwanted or troubled children is too great for the state to ignore those willing to step up.

Lawyer Danie Victor Alexandre, who practices in Stuart, Florida, said she believes everyone should be given an equal chance to adopt, especially when there are children in need. She said every case should be considered on an individual level.

“Just because someone went to jail or paid their debt to society doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a child,” she said.

The Gollys have considered alternatives. They tried in vitro fertilization, but that didn’t work. They’re trying again but it’s quite costly to do so. In a different scenario, they wouldn’t need to spend thousands of dollars on bringing a new life into the world when thousands of children don’t have a home.

Many children in foster care often face trouble with the law and the Gollys believe the lessons they learned from their own experience can be helpful. The Juvenile Law Center found 90% of foster children placed in five or more homes will be involved in the juvenile justice system.

Children in foster care, compared to those not, “disproportionately” fare worse in school, have trouble finding jobs and abuse alcohol and drugs as a young adult and years leading up to it, according to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“There are so many kids out there who need homes, so many kids who have drug addicts as parents and just need the loving support of a family,” Tracy said.

Like the Gollys, Beth Dodd and wife Angela Dougherty, of Gainesville, were eager to adopt or foster. But they now feel it’s a lost cause.

Dodd served about 10 years behind bars after accidentally hitting and killing a person with her car. She accepted responsibility and said she’s spent years working to make amends.

Just turned 40, Dodd said she’s moved forward with her life and works at the Alachua County Public Works office. She hopes officials can look past her actions from two decades ago.

Dougherty’s record is scattered with a couple of misdemeanors, traffic infractions and felony arrests.

In 2014, Dodd went to pick up Angela’s nephew at his daycare center and found him covered in bruises. But the state refused to let the child stay with the couple. They were told they weren’t qualified to be parents because of their criminal records, Dodd said.

The boy was adopted by someone else. But the couple still longed to adopt. Officials and experts told Dodd she would succeed as long as she followed proper channels.

But after years of explaining themselves and their felony convictions, and after numerous home checks and attempts to prove themselves worthy, Dodd feels defeated and heartbroken. It’s especially difficult to see people who abuse and neglect these children.

“I’ve got a house and a college degree; I work for the government,” she said. “What else do they want?”

She and Dougherty are moving forward with in vitro fertilization, though the process has been slow and costly. They have given up on adoption.

Not giving up

Before the pandemic temporarily shut down her work, Tracy spent her early mornings and late evenings on the road from her home in Inverness to the vast retirement community of The Villages. There, at Fantastic Sams, Tracy snipped and blow-dried hair for eight, sometimes even 10, hours a day. It’s Tracy’s passion; she earned her cosmetology license through a program in prison.

Manager Michelle Stuart said Tracy’s care and dedication has made her an invaluable asset.

“She’s fantastic,” Stuart said.

Tracy’s coworker, Kari Kmetz, is supportive of her efforts of becoming a mother.

“She’s just a very warm-hearted generous person,” Kmetz said. “I think they would be absolutely perfect.”

The Gollys say they are not giving up hope of adding children to their family, even with the uncertainty this pandemic has cast on American lives. They say they are grateful to have been able to rise from their pasts and find joy together. Now they look forward to adding to their family and sharing that joy.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at dcassidy@freshtakeflorida.com

About Dana Cassidy

Dana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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