Last year, Utah couple Beckie Peirce and April Hoagland decided to get married. Last summer, in a decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, the Supreme Court confirmed that this was okay. Then, Peirce and Hoagland wanted to take in a foster child. So, because the Supreme Court had signed off on gay marriage, Utah child services officials licensed the couple earlier this year. And, in August, Peirce and Hoagland welcomed a 1-year-old girl into their home, where she joined the couple’s two biological children. Plans for adoption, approved by the baby’s biological mother, were in place — soon, this would be a family of five.
But on Wednesday, a Utah judge decided to end this plan, ordering the girl removed from her foster home because he said she would be better off with heterosexual parents.
Hoagland said the decision was “heartbreaking.”
Beckie Peirce, left, and April Hoagland.
“I was kind of caught off guard because I didn’t think anything like that would happen anymore,” Hoagland told KUTV. “… It’s not fair, and it’s not right, and it hurts me really badly because I haven’t done anything wrong.”
A copy of the court order by Judge Scott Johansen, a juvenile court judge in Utah’s Seventh District, was not immediately available, but the Salt Lake Tribune confirmed its contents. Hoagland told KUTV that Johansen said that “through his research he had found out that kids in homosexual homes don’t do as well as they do in heterosexual homes.”
On Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he was “a little puzzled” by the decision, and that the state Division of Child and Family Services will review it and investigate.
“I’m a little puzzled by the action down there, personally,” Herbert said during his monthly KUED news conference, according to the Tribune. “[The judge] may not like the law, but he should follow the law. … We don’t want to have activism on the bench in any way, shape or form.”
Johansen’s office Thursday said he can’t comment on court decisions.
Hoagland told KUTV that when the judge was asked to show his research, he wouldn’t.
“I believe it’s a religious belief,” Peirce said. But this was strictly Peirce’s opinion, and what role judge’s religious beliefs may or may not have played on his decision is unclear.
Johansen did receive his law degree from the Mormon Church’s Brigham Young University, and the region is heavily Mormon. Last week officials with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the faith’s full name — confirmed it had made a change to its handbook to say children of same-sex couples cannot be blessed or baptized until they are 18. The decision is now facing wide protest from LGBT Mormons and their advocates.
Brent Platt, director of the Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services, said Wednesday his office hadn’t seen Johansen’s order.
“On the one hand, I’m not going to expect my caseworkers to violate a court order,” said Platt, “but on the other hand, I’m not going to expect my caseworkers to violate the law.”
“We have a lot of support,” Peirce told the Tribune. “DCFS wants us to have the child, the guardian ad litem [a court-appointed representative for the child] wants us to have the child, the mother wants us to have the child, so the only thing standing in the way is the judge.”
This is not the first time one of Johansen’s decisions — and personal behavior — has been in headlines. In 1995, at the courthouse in Price, Utah, where he served, he slapped the 16-year-old son of a friend who thought the teenager was stealing.
“I knew immediately it was the wrong thing to do,” Johansen said at the time. “This was just a friend of mine who brought his kid over. … It was different than if I was acting with the authority of the state, but it was still not the right thing to do.” After the incident, Price was reprimanded by a judicial conduct commission for “demeaning the judicial office.”
In another unusual case, from 2012, Johansen pondered the fate of a teenager facing assault charges for cutting off most of a toddler’s hair. It was eye for an eye that day: Johansen ordered the teenager’s mother to cut off her daughter’s ponytail in exchange for a lighter sentence. Here’s how the Deseret News reported the exchange:
“I’m going to give you this option: I will cut that by 150 hours if you want to cut her hair right now,” Johansen said.
“Me, cut her hair?” [Valerie] Bruno asked.
“Right now,” the judge said. “I’ll go get a pair of scissors and we’ll whack that ponytail off.”
[Mindy] Moss, the victim’s mother, was in the courtroom and fully supported the penalty. She even spoke up when she didn’t believe Bruno had cut enough of Lopan’s ponytail off.
“Satisfied? Is it short enough?” Johansen asked Moss.
“No,” she replied. “My daughter’s hair that had never been cut, that was down to [the middle of her back], was cut up to here.”
“Take it off clear up to the rubberband,” the judge told Bruno, who protested that the scissors he’d given her weren’t up to the task.
Three years ago, the Tribune, in an editorial, took Johansen to task for his harsh sentences after he sent a boy on probation to jail for stealing a pack of gum. The reason? The boy had violated his probation by getting a poor report card.
“Seventh District Juvenile Court Judge Scott Johansen has a reliable recipe for turning an underperforming student into a juvenile delinquent, or worse,” the Tribune wrote in 2012. “And, unfortunately, Johansen follows his own recipe far too often when sentencing young offenders.” It added: “That was the beginning of a pattern of incarceration for the boy.”
Johansen’s exploits even led to the short-lived blog “Judge Scott Johansen is a tyrant” after he challenged home-schoolers in Utah to enroll their kids in class, or possibly lose them to the foster system.
“Scott Johansen is out of line,” read a post from 2007 that called him “out of control.” “He hates homeschooling so much that when a school lost a mother’s paper stating she will be homeschooling her kids the judge ordered the mother to enroll her kids in school within 24 hours or go to jail and lose her kids.”
After Johansen ordered the baby removed from Peirce and Hoagland, the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for LGBT equality, condemned the decision, which will take effect in seven days.
“Removing a child from a loving home simply because the parents are LGBT is outrageous, shocking, and unjust,” Chad Griffin, the group’s president, said in a statement. “It also flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that children being raised by same-sex parents are just as healthy and well-adjusted as those with different-sex parents. At a time when so many children in foster care need loving homes, it is sickening to think that a child would be taken from caring parents who planned to adopt.”
“We’ve been told to care for this child as a mother would,” Hoagland said. “And I am her mother. That’s who she knows, and she’s just going to be taken away.”
This story has been updated.