October 23, 2014

Marriage Initiative Expects to Serve More Gay Couples

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The company that runs the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative said it anticipates “a greater interface” with the gay and lesbian community after a federal court ruling overturned Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriages.

However, at least one of the initiative’s programs will remain off limits to same-sex couples.

Kendy Cox, director of community-based training services at Public Strategies, the Oklahoma City consulting firm that operates the publicly funded Marriage Initiative, said the initiative would likely draw more participation from gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual couples. She did not say whether the company would increase outreach specifically to that community. The initiative’s goal is to promote healthy families and marriages.

“We do anticipate a greater interface with the LGBT community as a part of these standard practices given the recent action on same-sex marriages,” Cox said in an email.

The expected shift reflects how government officials and other organizations are weighing the effects on their practices of the overturning of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Oklahoma’s appeal of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Since then, dozens of same-sex couples across the state have obtained marriage licenses.

The Marriage Initiative has offered workshops and other activities for hundreds of couples and students for more than a decade. Its programs are generally open to same-sex couples, and some have participated, Cox said.

Same-sex couples will continue to be excluded from a program called “Family Expectations,” which “aims to address the needs of biological parents of babies pre-birth and through the baby’s first birthday,” she said.

The program is for new or expectant biological parents, married or unmarried, and is also not available to adoptive couples.

Cox also said babies conceived through in vitro fertilization or donor assistance – methods often used by same-sex couples seeking to have children – would not be the biological children of those couples and, therefore, the family would be ineligible for the program.

“Family Expectations is a program created out of an extensive body of research that says the environment where the best child outcomes are achieved is a healthy home with the child’s two biological parents,” Cox said.

She said the criteria for participation in Family Expectations was specific, much like that of Children First and Head Start programs, in order to track outcomes with a target group.

Any couples found ineligible for Family Expectations would instead be invited to participate in other Marriage Initiative services.

A 2013 story by Oklahoma Watch reported that the Family Expectations program had the highest level of funding in the Marriage Initiative program, receiving an average of $345,000 a month in federal funding. State records show that more than $70 million in federal funds has been spent on the Marriage Initiative since its inception in 2000.

In fiscal 2014, the state paid Public Strategies nearly $4.5 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds for the Family Expectations program, appropriation records show. Another $2.6 million was earmarked for the Marriage Initiative’s service delivery system.

Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance, which advocates for gay and lesbian rights, said the research involving biological parents raised some troubling questions.

“It seems punitive to me,” Hamilton said. “I’ve seen other research that shows the opposite of what they are saying. New studies show the children of same-sex couples often do better in school and face less abuse. I’d like to see the Marriage Initiative’s research.”

Even with the Marriage Initiative’s plan to serve more gays and lesbians, Hamilton said he was skeptical that many same-sex couples would seek services from the program.

“Oklahoma same-sex couples have fought for so long for the right to marry, I’m not sure how many of them will seek out these services,” he said.

However, Hamilton added that the Marriage Initiative has no choice but to make its services available to the LGTB community.

“I think the court’s ruling is pretty clear,” he said. “Federal funds always come with requirements.”

Created by then Gov. Frank Keating in 1999, the Marriage Initiative originally had the goal of lowering Oklahoma’s divorce rate by a third within a decade. In 2002, the program dropped that goal, saying it was unattainable, and it now focuses on encouraging healthy marriages and families.