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A Utah judge is trying to split up a family because the parents are gay

Beckie Peirce, April Hoagland, and their family.
Beckie Peirce, April Hoagland, and their family.

Following the Supreme Court's decision to uphold same-sex marriage rights across the nation, a lesbian couple in Utah figured they would add a third child to their family. So Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland signed up to take in a foster child — and Utah child services signed off, letting a 1-year-old girl join the couple's home. Plans for adoption, which the biological mother approved, were underway.

But on Wednesday, a Utah judge crushed the couple's hopes. Seventh District Court Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen ordered that the foster child be placed in another family, reportedly claiming that she would be better off in an opposite-sex couple's home.

A copy of the order is not readily available, but a court spokesperson confirmed its content to the Salt Lake Tribune: The judge, citing "research," said he believes the child would be better off with opposite-sex parents. But when pressed by the couple's attorneys and the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, Johansen didn't provide specifics about the research in court.

The couple, who are also raising Peirce's two biological children, hired an attorney and plan to fight the decision. And Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said the judge was ignoring the law and out of line.

Whatever research Johansen may have relied on, the available empirical evidence on this is actually pretty clear: The children of same-sex couples fare just as well as those of opposite-sex couples.

The research backs up same-sex parents

A family with same-sex parents. MCT via Getty Images

There has been a lot of empirical research into whether the children of same-sex couples turn out just as well as the children of opposite-sex couples. Some previous research — particularly a highly controversial 2012 study by Mark Regnerus — suggested same-sex couples' children have worse outcomes, but it was repeatedly debunked by follow-up work. The general consensus today: After correcting for socioeconomic variables and family stability, the children of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples fare equally.

One review of the evidence from Bowling Green State University researchers found in 2014, "American children living within same-sex parent households fare just as well as those children residing within different-sex parent households over a wide array of well-being measures: academic performance, cognitive development, social development, psychological health, early sexual activity, and substance abuse. Our assessment of the literature is based on credible and methodologically sound studies that compare well-being outcomes of children residing within same-sex and different-sex parent families. Differences that exist in child well-being are largely due to socioeconomic circumstances and family stability."

Another study of same-sex parents, published by Australian researchers in 2014, concluded that the children of same-sex couples may actually fare better than other children after correcting for socioeconomic factors, based on measures like asthma, dental care, behavioral issues, learning, sleep, and speech. Study author Simon Crouch told ABC News in Australia one reason that may be the case: "So what this means is that people take on roles that are suited to their skill sets rather than falling into those gender stereotypes, which is mum staying home and looking after the kids and dad going out to earn money. What this leads to is a more harmonious family unit and therefore feeding on to better health and well-being." But this one study may be skewed by selection bias: The findings are based on reports from parents who agreed to the survey, who may be willing to participate because they have positive stories.

Still, the general empirical consensus states that the children of same-sex couples fare just as well as children in households with opposite-sex parents. And if anything holds these children back, the research also shows, it's stigma and discrimination: A review of the research for the American Academy of Pediatrics found, for instance, that same-sex couples' inability to marry in 2013 "adds to families' stress, which affects the health and welfare of all household members." So while the evidence suggests children of same-sex couples do just fine in life, they can have their outcomes hampered by prejudice — such as a judge removing a daughter from her loving parents just because of their sexual orientation.

Judge Scott Johansen has a history of bizarre decisions in court

A gavel. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Perhaps one of the most bizarre aspects of the Utah couple's case is that the judge seems to be setting a new precedent in the state without any legal basis to back it up. Utah Division of Child and Family Services director Brent Platt told the Salt Lake Tribune that state law doesn't prohibit same-sex couples from serving as foster parents, and no other judge in the state has expressed concerns similar to Johansen's. It remains unclear what law, if any, the judge based his order on.

But this isn't the first time the Utah judge had made some unusual decisions in his courtroom. The Washington Post's Justin Moyer ran through previous instances of Johansen's bizarre behavior:

  • In 1995, at a courthouse in Price, Utah, where he served, Johansen slapped a friend's 16-year-old son after the boy was accused of stealing. Johansen was later reprimanded by a judicial conduct office for "demeaning the judicial office."
  • In 2012, Johansen ordered a teenager's mother to cut off her daughter's ponytail in exchange for a lighter sentence when the teen faced assault charges for cutting off most of a toddler's hair.
  • Also in 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune criticized Johansen for sending a teen boy to juvenile detention for violating his probation on a theft conviction after the boy received a poor report card. The Tribune described the moment as "the beginning of a pattern of incarceration for the boy."
  • Johansen's antics even inspired a blog: Judge Scott Johansen is a Tyrant. One blog post criticized Johansen for reportedly ordering a homeschooling mom to enroll her kids in school or risk losing them. "Burn in hell, your honor," the post said.

But this time, Johansen has elevated himself to a broader national battle about LGBTQ rights, drawing criticism far beyond the state — with major LGBTQ organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton decrying the decision. And with the body of research — and possibly the law — working against Johansen, it's possible Peirce and Hoagland won't lose their daughter for very long, if at all.

Watch: How most states still discriminate against LGBTQ people