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SALT LAKE CITY — A juvenile court judge has reversed his order to remove a baby girl from her lesbian foster parents in favor of a heterosexual couple.
Utah State Courts released the judge's order Friday, crossing out the mandate from 7th District Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen, which said, "The court believes that it is not in the best interest of children to be raised by same-sex couples."
Despite assertions from Utah Division of Child and Family Services officials that the child had bonded with her foster mothers, April Hoagland and Beckie Peirce, and was happy and developing well, the judge originally ordered the girl to be placed "with a duly married, heterosexual foster-adoptive couple within one week" and denied a stay on the decision.
Hoagland said Friday that the judge's announcement was "heartbreaking." Peirce, on the other hand, said she was angry. Those feelings turned to relief Friday when the couple learned the baby they have cared for over the past three months will stay with them for now.
"I'm just very happy that Tuesday is not going to be a daunting day, it's going to be like any other day," Hoagland said. "I'm just overwhelmed with joy."
Following the judge's order given during a routine permanency hearing on Tuesday, DCFS and the child's foster mothers were scrambling for options to contest or appeal the order before the one-week deadline. DCFS and an attorney for the couple filed motions late Thursday asking Johansen to reconsider.
The revised order leaves the baby in the custody of DCFS while the biological mother's parental rights are terminated, leaving the agency free to continue the placement with Hoagland and Peirce in the interim. The couple hopes to adopt the girl.
A new hearing in the case has been set for Dec. 4, and as of Friday was scheduled to continue before the same judge.
Ashley Sumner, a spokeswoman for the agency, said DCFS officials were relieved Friday after the judge removed the portion of the order that would have required them to uproot the child.
"We were under a lot of pressure, and we feel like that has been relieved," Sumner said. "We're cautiously optimistic about the trajectory of this case."
The division is still evaluating its options and preparing in advance of the upcoming hearing, Sumner said. As far as the possibility of Hoagland and Peirce possibly adopting the baby, "Our goal is to keep this child in their home."
Hoagland and Peirce, who were married last year, were licensed as foster parents earlier this year, and the child was placed with them in August. Through that time, the couple has met all DCFS requirements and had the division's support for a potential adoption.
Peirce's two adolescent children also live with the couple.
Same-sex couples have been eligible to serve as foster parents in Utah since October of 2014 when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling to overturn the state's definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
In court on Tuesday, Johansen gave no reason for ordering the removal of the child other than the foster couple's sexual orientation. The order released Thursday still includes a concern from the judge that "research has shown that children are more emotionally and mentally stable when raised by a mother and a father in the same home."
Now crossed out, the order previously went on to state: "… that same-sex marriages have double the rate of instability as heterosexual marriages have, and that the emotional problems suffered by children in same-sex relationships increase by a factor of four compared to children raised by heterosexual couples."
A court clerk also noted that the judge "declined to identify or provide research upon which (his) opinion is based to the parties despite several requests by counsel to do so."
The order indicates a 2010 article titled "Parenting and Child Development in Adoptive Families: Does Parental Sexual Orientation Matter?" was received as evidence in the case.
The couple has never faced opposition to their relationship from the Price community, Peirce said Friday. She called Johansen's ruling "a mistake" that she is grateful was corrected.
"We all make mistakes as humans, we all have our own opinions, and sometimes they come out in the wrong setting," Peirce said. "I'm not going to guess as to where it came from, I'm just grateful he decided to fix that mistake."
Peirce and Hoagland said that while they rather would have avoided the uncertainty of the past several days, they hope their experience will stand as an example against similar situations in the future. The couple intends to save copies of the nationwide headlines about their story to show the girl when she is older.
"We're probably going to make a scrapbook of all this so that she knows how important she truly is," Peirce said.
The judge's decision has drawn national attention as well as concern from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. The governor on Thursday said he was "puzzled" by Johansen's order and indicated he should "follow the law."
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT civil rights organization, filed a formal complaint against Johansen with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission on Friday. A letter to the commission called Johansen's move to pull the child from Hoagland and Peirce's home discriminatory and harmful.
"Removing this child from a loving and permanent home based solely on the sexual orientation of its parents is not only discriminatory, but is also counter to the overwhelming evidence that children being raised by same-sex parents are just as healthy and well-adjusted as those with different-sex parents," Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in a letter to the commission.
The couple's attorney did not comment Friday on the complaint.
The complaint accuses Johansen of violating the Utah Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from acting in prejudice based on sexual orientation. Warbelow called on the Judicial Conduct Commission to act quickly in light of the pending Dec. 4 hearing.
Johansen has made headlines in Utah in the past, including a 2012 decision where he told the mother of a 13-year-old girl accused of cutting a toddler's hair in a restaurant that he would reduce her daughter's sentence if she cut off the girl's ponytail in his courtroom. The judge was also reprimanded in 1997 for slapping a 16-year-old boy in the Price courthouse.
Contributing: Mike Anderson, Andrew Adams