Emma and Isabella, twin two year olds, peered shyly from the safety of their dads’ laps. Their baby brother Riley slept nearby in the arms of Robyn Harrod, director of the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency. The emotion in the room was palpable as Matthew and Greg described the odyssey leading to their adoption of the three children.
Foster adoption agencies like SCFFAA specialize in finding safe, loving homes for kids who have been removed from their parents’ care due to abuse or neglect. Until recently, foster adoption agencies maintained two groups of resource families; temporary foster families and permanent adoptive parents. A child might have several foster placements before finding a permanent adoptive home. These upheavals made it difficult for many children to form healthy emotional attachments. Now, welfare agencies use “concurrent planning”, cultivating a single pool of families who can provide short-term foster care, or permanent adoption. Foster adoption has opened the door for same sex families who found it difficult to adopt through traditional channels, as well as families lacking the financial resources for conventional adoption.
The Lucky Ones
Matt and Greg, parents of three foster adopted children, live in a pleasant townhouse on a quiet street. Greg has been a full time dad since the girls first came home. Matt has his own consulting business, which allows him to be at home part time as well.
“We always wanted kids”, Greg told me. “The only question was whether to have our own or adopt. Matt’s an only child, so he was more invested in biological paternity. We talked about having an egg donor and a gestational surrogate. But it’s $40,000 to $50,000 for the surrogate, another $20,000 or more for the donor, legal fees, insurance….and there is no guarantee that it will work. The donor eggs could fail to fertilize. The surrogate could fail to get pregnant, or miscarry. We thought about asking a friend to be a surrogate but what if she decided she wanted to be the baby’s mother after all?”
“What about adoption?”
“We’d heard that some mothers shy away from gay families, while others think that choosing a gay couple may allow them to play a mothering role. Neither sounded good. And foreign adoption didn’t feel right when there were so many children in need right here. Then we came across an incredibly moving article by the actress Nia Vardalos about her child’s adoption. That’s when we knew foster adoption was for us.”
“I held my daughter in my arms and thanked God for bringing her to me. If the standard route of creating a family had worked for me, I wouldn’t have met this child. And I needed to know her. I needed to be her mother. And in that moment, I knew why it had all happened this way: So I could meet this little girl. She is, in every way, my daughter.”
-Nia Vardalos, “The List”, The Huffington Post, January 27, 2009
A chorus of liquid squeaks and gurgles from the baby monitor let us know that Riley was awake. As Greg warmed up a bottle, the girls burst in the front door chattering about their day to Matt, who was loaded down with their diaper bags and toys. While Greg went over to kiss the girls hello, Matt gave Riley his bottle and good humoredly told me about how differently he and Greg had viewed becoming parents.
“I’m a businessman”, he explained. “I like things to follow a rational plan. Greg is a little more impulsive. When you apply to adopt you describe what kind of kids you want to parent, what age and ethnicity, any health issues. I was willing to hold out for a child who made sense for us.”
“It’s true”, Greg agreed. “I couldn’t stand the thought of a child in need. For example, one baby girl was likely to be reunited with her birth parents. We would have been heartbroken to bond with her and then lose her. In the end, I appreciated Matt’s pragmatism.”
“How did you decide to have more than one child?”
“We wanted to have at least two”, Matt told me. “A year after we applied, Robyn called to say that she had five day old Hispanic twin girls. The crazy part was that we had to pick up the girls that day. We had about five hours to get ready.”
“It was as much of a sure thing as we could hope for”, Greg said. “The mother had left the hospital without seeing the girls, and had six kids already in foster care. There was a history of domestic violence and the biological father was in jail. Reunification was unlikely. It was also really nice to be able to parent the girls from birth, knowing there was no trauma to overcome. We didn’t know what kind of prenatal care the mom had, but the babies tested negative for drugs.”
The girls wandered in from the dining room and Emma came right over to check me out. Isabella hung back behind Greg, clearly taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude.
“When they were younger Isabella was more outgoing”, Matt remarked. “Now Emma has really come out of her shell.”
“So how did the adoption process go?” I asked.
Matt sighed. “Slowly! The system is designed to prepare the birth parents to care for their own kids. They get six months of psychological counseling, drug rehab, domestic violence counseling, even supervised visits, if there isn’t imminent danger to the child.”
“So the court doesn’t weigh whether you or the birth family will provide a better life for the kids.”
“No. From their point of view, we are definitely ‘Plan B’. Greg said. “But the mother having six kids in foster care helped our position. She was granted one hour a week of supervised visitation, but she seldom showed up for the visits. We were surprised when the judge granted her six more months.”
“At that point the girls had really bonded with us and didn’t like being left with a stranger”, Matt said. “They would cry for the whole hour. Eventually the social worker agreed to let me join them. That was easier on the girls, and on me, frankly.”
It was a warm day so Greg and I took some iced tea out into the garden. Riley lay on the sofa next to Greg, gazing serenely at his dad’s face. He seemed utterly at ease listening to the sound of Greg’s voice, his little feet kicking energetically in the warm air.
“The judge terminated the mom’s rights after a year”, Greg continued. “There hadn’t been enough progress to warrant reunification. But she filed an appeal. We were free to legally adopt the girls then, but we decided to wait until the appeal was settled. SCFFAA is only paid by the state until an adoption is finalized. We preferred to have them involved until the end. It wasn’t over until the girls were 2 ½!”
“What about the birth mother?”
“She doesn’t have legal visitation rights but we keep in touch. We see the older siblings and even the bio dad’s family once in a while. They are decent people and it’s good for the girls to know where they come from.”
“Have you been a full time dad since you brought the girls home?”
“It was a priority for me, especially with adopted kids. We get a small monthly stipend for each child until they are eighteen, and their medical care is free. So even with one of us home full time we’re able to save for college.”
Greg picked Riley up and bounced him on his lap. Riley giggled and kicked, trying to stand on his wobbly legs.
“The girls were begging for a new brother or sister”, Greg went on. “We were hoping for a Hispanic boy so he’d be the same ethnicity as the girls, preferably an infant. And no drugs or alcohol. Robyn called us just two months later with a two day old Hispanic boy. We were flying kites on the beach with the girls when we got the call. Luckily we heard the phone ring!”
I laughed. “He’s a wonderful boy. Is the mom trying to get him back?”
“No. But there are other issues. She had no prenatal care – she just walked in to the hospital, gave birth, and left without seeing the baby. She was schizophrenic. Her family didn’t know where she was and didn’t want the baby. She has five older kids already in foster care. The father is unknown. If neither parent can be found, the court can terminate the birth parents rights faster. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
I looked at Riley, safe in his dad’s arms. The contrast between his life now and the life he might have had was sobering. If the birth mom had not had the presence of mind to get to the hospital things could have gone very, very badly for this child.
“We worry about schizophrenia, of course,” Greg said. And HIV, because we know so little about the mother. The test isn’t reliable until the baby is eighteen months old, so we’ll probably find out after we adopt him. Of course it wouldn’t matter. The test would just give us the information we need to care for him.”
I went over and sat beside Riley. I tickled his toes and held his hands, talking silly nonsense to him as he giggled and kicked. He watched me with that full, seeking attention that a young baby trains on a new face, the marvelous, fresh new consciousness of a young being with absolutely nothing to fear.
“You know”, Greg said quietly, “people sometimes say that our kids are lucky. But we’re the lucky ones.”
“You all are”, I said. “More than lucky. Blessed.”