LINCOLN — Kelly Hoagland and Maria Salas Valdez expected to walk out of a Dixon County courtroom a year ago as the legal parents of the child they had been raising since birth.
Instead, they were stunned to hear the judge at the hearing declare that he was tossing out their adoption petition.
Describing himself as “old-fashioned,” Dixon County Judge Douglas Luebe told them that the “plain ordinary language” of state adoption law does not permit a “wife and wife” to adopt. Any other conclusion, he continued, would turn the court into an “imagination station.”
“I was shocked,” Hoagland said. “I had to turn around and ask the lawyer, did he just say what I thought he said? I couldn’t understand why he did what he did.”
The turn of events left the Wakefield, Nebraska, couple in dismay and their daughter, Yasmin, in legal limbo.
The story was different two weeks ago, when the family returned to the courthouse in Ponca, Nebraska, with a different judge presiding and a Nebraska Supreme Court decision in their hands.
This time, Dixon County Judge Edward Matney approved the petition for Hoagland and Valdez to adopt the girl they call Yazzy. He smiled at the 3½-year-old during the hearing as she played a game of kissing Hoagland’s hands. And he invited the family to take photos with him afterward.
“When that judge finally finalized it, I just started crying,” Hoagland said.
That moment came almost six years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally and after multiple other court decisions upheld same-sex married couples’ right to the same treatment as opposite-sex married couples.
It was after a federal judge permanently enjoined a Nebraska constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages. And after many other same-sex married couples had adopted in the state without being challenged.
But Hoagland and Valdez could have been denied if they had not decided to fight for their daughter.
Hoagland, an Indiana native, and Valdez, from Mexico, have been together since 2007. They tied the knot in Van Nuys, California, in 2008, shortly after that state started allowing same-sex couples to marry.
In 2009, they moved to Nebraska because of Hoagland’s work as a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector. She had two elementary-age children of her own when they landed in Wakefield, a town of about 1,400 people that is home to a major egg-processing plant.
At first, Hoagland said, local residents were wary. Parents wouldn’t let their children play with her two kids in the beginning. But over time, acceptance has grown, and the family has developed friendships in town.
“They finally figured out we’re just like everybody else,” she said.
Yasmin came to live with them after her birth in 2017. She was born to Valdez’ sister, who had been struggling to care for two children already. Hoagland and Valdez offered to take the baby to help out. Yasmin’s biological mother agreed, knowing that she could still be part of the child’s life. Yasmin’s father never sought custody.
After Luebe rejected their adoption petition, the couple turned to Omaha attorney Matt Munderloh. With the help of the ACLU of Nebraska, he took the case directly to the state’s highest court.
“It was very trying, very stressful,” Hoagland said. “It was a nerve-wracking process.”
But only a month after hearing oral arguments, the court ruled unanimously in the couple’s favor. While Luebe had said the plain language of state law does not permit a wife and wife to adopt, the high court unanimously concluded exactly the opposite, also citing the plain language of the law.
The statute at issue says “any minor child may be adopted by any adult person or persons.” It also requires that if the would-be adopter has “a husband or wife,” the husband or wife must join in the adoption petition.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said the two women fit the category of adult persons and, based on the common definition of “wife” as “a married woman,” that either woman had fulfilled the requirement to have her wife join in the petition.
Following its practice in cases involving juveniles, the court identified Yasmin and the two women only by initials.
Hoagland said they have decided to go public because the adoption is final and they hope that their story can help other same-sex couples and other children needing permanent, loving homes.
“I just pray it helps so many people and all those children in foster care,” she said.