Almost 20 Questions on Adoption with my Friend, Jeff

Jeff and Family

Last year I noticed a friend’s Facebook feed had changed from mostly witty banter and funny photos to some pretty earnest personal updates.  We had been friendly in college but, aside from Facebook, I really hadn’t kept up with his life.  As the updates rolled in, I learned he had adopted a 13-year-old boy with his partner.  I was shocked.  And amazed.

Having worked in law enforcement for the better part of my legal career, I know first-hand how troubled children in our foster system can be. With three kids of my own, I am also humbled by how incredibly difficult this whole business of parenting is.  And, although I am embarrassed to admit it, even though I love children and have thought about adoption many times, I would be afraid to take an older child into my home.  I would be scared to connect with any kid that has had the kind of problems that sometimes result in adoption.

As I sought out his updates to see how the adoption went, I asked myself, “What does Jeff know that I don’t”?  How had he made the decision to open up his relationship, his home and, well, his whole entire life to such an unknown quantity?  How had he found that kind of bravery?

I had to learn more.  I sent him an e-mail asking for an interview and he said yes.  Thank you, Jeff!  Here is the interview in its entirety.  I tried to think of everything but if I missed something and you have a question for Jeff, please let me know and I will forward it to him.

Aside from teaching me the the basics of our adoption system, Jeff reminded me of something very important:

Having a child, whether by birth or adoption, is a crapshoot.  It’s a giant, scary, risk.  You really don’t know what you are going to get.

But that includes the good with the bad.

If you go in with as much preparation as possible (and with realistic expectations), the joy and delight gotten from caring for another being in that way is one of the most amazing gifts you can give yourself.

Congratulations to Jeff and his family on celebrating their first year together.  With over 31,000 youth between the ages of 11 and 17 in foster care, I hope their story inspires you to think about adoption too.

1) A little background on you and your family.

Danny and I have been together for 8 ½ years and live in Atlanta.  I’m originally from suburban Philadelphia and work as a journalist.  Danny grew up in Boston and works in the banking industry.  We first adopted three rescue dogs, Dallas, Denver and Dorney before opening our home to RJ in March 2013.  RJ is 13-years-old and when I asked him to describe himself for this blog posting, he said he’s “strong-willed and amazing”.  We agree.

2) When/how did you decide adoption was right for you?

Shortly after we moved from Pennsylvania to Atlanta in 2011, Danny’s 13-year-old nephew moved in with us for six weeks.  He had behavioral issues and needed some tough love and a male role model to set him straight.  After he left, we realized how much we missed having a child in the home and decided to create a family of our own.  Having children was something I never thought would be possible as a gay man.  However, when Danny and I joined a progressive Methodist church in Atlanta, our plans for our future were suddenly reshaped.  The congregation consists of many children with same-sex parents.  For the first time since coming out in the late 90s, I realized I could become a dad.

3) What options did you look into?

We consulted a non-profit group in Atlanta that helps gay and lesbian couples navigate the often confusing maze to parenthood.  After meeting with its director, we ruled out surrogacy because of its outrageous cost and foreign adoption because there aren’t any countries that will allow gay couples to adopt. We briefly considered adopting a newborn but ultimately ruled it out in favor of adopting an older child who was in the foster care system.

Often- cited statistics estimate 400,000 children are in foster care across the country and 104,000 of them are ready to be adopted right now.  Unfortunately, there’s an undeserved stigma attached to foster children which I believe prevents many people from adopting them.

I’ve always felt a calling to help children who didn’t have a family of their own.  As a child, I asked my mom if we could bring an “orphan” into our home for the holidays so Santa Claus would bring him or her toys. As you can imagine, this past Christmas was a dream come true for me.

4)  What was the process like?  Where did you start?  What state?  How did you do it?  What was the timeline?  How long? Expenses? Setbacks? Anything you wish you had known?

Even in the red state of Georgia gay couples can adopt – as long as they jump through hoops and use loopholes to their advantage.  We began the process by attending a state-mandated training session in January 2012.  Then we signed with a private agency called Georgia MENTOR, which facilitates adoption of foster children. Georgia MENTOR and other for-profit and non-profit organizations have contracts with the state to provide pre and post-adoption services.

Over the next month and a half, our adoption coordinator visited us four times to assess the safety of our home and our suitability as parents.  We completed piles of paperwork, drug tests, physicals and several background checks.  Our coordinator then used all that information to write a home study which she sent to the state Division of Family and Children Services for approval.  We got the green light to adopt in early April – only two and a half months after beginning the process. Getting approved in Georgia qualified us to adopt a foster child from almost every other state, so we searched from coast to coast.

There are some extra steps required when adopting an out-of-state child, but most of it is handled by the agencies –not the parents.  Most states allow foster children to be placed with same-sex couples although there’s no doubt in my mind that some caseworkers didn’t consider us because of our sexuality.

There isn’t any upfront cost when adopting a foster child. The only fee we had to pay before RJ was placed with us was $60 for a drug test. There may be a fee to finalize the adoption depending on the family’s situation but there are tax credits available to recoup the cost. It’s common for states to provide a small monthly stipend to the adoptive parents until the child turns 18. RJ is also eligible to receive Medicaid benefits until his 18th birthday which helps keep our health insurance premiums lower.

5. How did you and RJ pick each other?

After we were approved to adopt, we began looking at various websites (AdoptUSKids.org and AFamilyForEveryChild.org) that feature children available for adoption.  We spent each night on our sofa scrolling through pages of photos and biographies looking for the child who “spoke” to us.  It was a process that left us exhausted and heartbroken, as night after night we read about children who wanted nothing more than a family and a home to call their own.

We were looking for a child between the ages of 6 and 12 that was “open” for adoption. “Open” means their birthparents’ parental rights had been terminated by the courts.  Once that happens, there is no chance that the birthparents can ever receive custody of the child again.  That was important to us because we didn’t want to deal with the possibility that our child may be returned to his or her birthparents.  If adoptive parents are willing to take that risk, they open themselves up to a larger pool of younger children.  Friends of ours were placed with a four- year- old boy last summer and are still uncertain whether they’ll be able to adopt him because his birthfather’s rights have not been terminated yet.

In September 2012, we ran across RJ’s profile online and immediately felt a connection. He had a cute round face, curly brown hair and a goofy smirk.  But it was one line in his narrative that won us over.  “He will explore creeks and woods where there are bugs, critters, etc. as long as there is someone to go exploring with.”  Hiking and exploring are activities Danny and I often did as a couple and hoped to continue as a family.

RJ had a tough start to life.  For reasons I’d rather not explain here, RJ was removed from his birthmother’s care then faced the death of his birthfather.  RJ was then cared for by his stepmother until state protective services removed him from the home after she failed to complete a safety plan.

We sent our homestudy to RJ’s caseworker in Ohio for consideration but had to wait another two months for her to make a decision.  Once the caseworker selected us, it was up to RJ to decide if he wanted to meet us.  At his caseworker’s request, we created a photo album and video introducing ourselves to him.

Obviously we were concerned how RJ would feel about having two dads.  We were told his initial reaction was “that’s weird” but his foster mom encouraged him to keep an open mind and he agreed to meet us.  A month after being selected, we drove to Ohio to take him on a weekend camping trip.  It was clear from the first night that we were a match.

6. What has been the most difficult thing about adopting?

Initially, the most difficult thing about adopting was waiting.  We spent months inquiring about children and rarely got a reply. We learned it is common for caseworkers not to respond to families who express an interest in a child unless they are chosen.  Now that RJ is with us, Danny and I are surprised at how relatively “easy” it has been.  RJ is a resilient and kindhearted kid who rarely misbehaves and is a pleasure to have around.  Most of the issues we deal with are no different than those any other parent of a teenager must handle.

One unique challenge in adopting an older child is respecting his struggle between identifying with his birthparents and his new family.  For instance, RJ has very fond memories of his late birthfather and decided to keep his last name after adoption as a tribute to him. Although we understood and accepted RJ’s decision, it created some hard feelings on our part.  We had hoped RJ would take our last names as a sign of our new family.  His decision, however, reminded us of what we already knew deep down – family is deeper than genes or a name.

7. What has been the best thing about adopting?

The best thing about adopting RJ has been watching him become a happy child. Despite the loss and disappointment he experienced in his young life, RJ now seems to be finding an inner peace and contentment.  RJ’s first foster mom recently commented on a new photo of him, “Look at that smile.  I’ve never seen him smile like that before. You can tell he’s genuinely happy.”

8. Has anything been easy?

Danny and I have been surprised at how well-behaved and obedient RJ is.  Since he moved in ten months ago, he’s never raised his voice at us or said a mean thing to us or about anyone.  He debunks the myth that all foster children are troublemakers.

9. Were there any surprises?

I think I answered it in number 8.

10. What has been the hardest part of parenting?

Please see number 6.

11. What kind of challenges have you faced or do you think you will have to face as a gay couple adopting?

As I mentioned earlier, gay couples in Georgia (and in most states) can adopt as long as they jump through a few hoops and take advantage of loopholes.  Although the state’s DFCS approved us to adopt, the state of Georgia doesn’t allow unmarried couples (gay or straight) to finalize adoptions jointly.  Couples can get around this thanks to a provision in the law that allows for second-parent adoptions.  That is how Danny and I became RJ’s legal parents.

Seven months after RJ moved into our home, we went to the courthouse to finalize the adoption. In a quick ten-minute proceeding in the judge’s chambers, Danny became RJ’s legal father.  He then had to sign a second-parent form allowing me to become RJ’s father as well. Unfortunately, most superior court judges in Georgia refuse to grant second parent adoptions to same-sex couples.  We live in one of two Georgia counties (DeKalb and Fulton) with progressive judges that do.  As a result, many gay couples who live in outlying counties set up temporary residences in Fulton or DeKalb in order to form their families legally.

Naturally, we are concerned RJ may face backlash as a result of having two dads, so we’ve tried to surround him with supportive people as much as possible. We live in a progressive community in Atlanta, enrolled RJ in a Quaker school that emphasizes equality for all people and attend a progressive church where he has become friends with children of other same-sex couples.

12. What was your biggest fear about adopting in general?  What was your biggest fear adopting an older child?  Was it founded?

Danny and I were concerned that we’d have difficulty “attaching” to an older child and vice-versa.  We had learned about other parents who had trouble loving their adopted older child because of his or her negative behaviors.  Fortunately for us, RJ is a lovable and sweet boy who is easy to love.  In fact, I believe we fell in love with RJ before we even met him. Our fears weren’t founded but everyone’s situation is different.

We consider ourselves lucky.

13. What is your biggest fear about parenting in general?

Our biggest fear about parenting is the same as every parent’s.  We worry that we’ll prepare RJ properly to avoid peer pressure, attend and succeed in college and become a well-adjusted adult and contributing member of society.

14. What was your biggest fear parenting a teenager?

I think we worried that RJ would push us away – as most teens do to their parents – before we had a chance to connect with him.  That didn’t happen.  RJ expresses his affection for us regularly.  For instance, just a few minutes ago, RJ sat down next to me and rested his head on my shoulder as I typed.  Small gestures like that mean the world to me.

15.  What resources would you recommend for someone thinking about adoption?

There are some great websites that can help you get started on your journey toward adoption.  AdoptUSKids.org and AFamilyForEveryChild.org are just two of them.  You can also find a free adoption guide at DaveThomasFoundation.org.

16.  Where should I start if I want to adopt?

I’d recommend reaching out to a private (for-profit or non-profit) organization that has a contract with your state child welfare department to provide pre and post-adoption services.  As I mentioned earlier, working directly with a state office may unnecessarily drag out the approval and placement process because many of its employees are overworked and, I believe, underpaid.  In our case, Georgia MENTOR (also known as The MENTOR Network) provided training, completed our homestudy, prepared us for adoption and helped us search for our son.

17.  Advice or tips?

If you’re considering adopting a foster child, here are a few tips from my experience:

Consider your limitations: It’s important to know exactly what diagnoses and behaviors in a child you can and cannot handle. Give it serious thought, do research, and talk it over with your partner, if you’re adopting as a couple.

Go with your gut instinct.  Even though your adoption coordinator is working with you, he or she may recommend a child that isn’t right for your family.  For instance, just a month before we were selected to be RJ’s parents, our adoption coordinator told us about a six and one-year-old brother-sister pair that needed a home immediately.  We had limited information about them and felt rushed and pressured into making a decision.  Danny and I didn’t feel comfortable with it and ultimately decided against accepting the pair.  We felt horrible rejecting them but knew deep down we weren’t what these two kids needed.

Be patient.  It may seem to take a while to find your child but remember it takes birth parents 9 months before they meet their child.  Don’t be surprised if it takes a bit longer.  RJ moved into our home less than 14 months after we started the process.

Don’t be afraid. Some children have histories that are so awful, it’s easy to be frightened away.  We’ve found stability, patience and love has helped our son thrive.  You will make a difference.  By adopting a child you may not change the world. But you will change the world for that child.

18. Questions I should have asked?

I asked RJ what advice he’d give to adoptive parents-to-be. Here is his top five list:  Be prepared to spend money.  Be prepared to make food.  Be prepared to get a dog.  Be prepared to play video games.  Be prepared for the time of your life.   I couldn’t agree more.

I also asked RJ what adoption means to him.  He responded, “It’s like happiness.” Enough said.

 

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