When Rita Mae and Elizabeth began dating, Elizabeth was already pregnant with their first child, Charlotte. Several years and two states later, they are the proud mamas to two little girls—Rita Mae later gave birth to Maxine—both from the same donor dad.
James and Paul had always been around children, and they adored their nieces and nephews. One day, James announced that he wanted them to take foster parent classes together, and two weeks later they were contacted about a potential match. That first match was Stewart, who immediately adopted them as his dads. Their younger son, Leon, rounds out their family of four.
These stories represent just a sampling of the ways in which LGBT people are creating families through adoption. Anne Johnson of Children and Families First helps people interested in adopting to explore their options and find agencies that can meet their needs.
“Many out-of-state and religiously based adoption agencies will not work with LGBT couples,” she says. “Some won’t work with single parents either.”
Anne provides home study services and then helps couples find the out-of-state agencies that do work with LGBT families. She also assists a family if a local birthmother comes to the agency requesting an LGBT family for the placement of her child.
Another option is adopting through the State Special Needs Program. This program includes infants and children who are removed from homes where parents have not been able to provide their children with adequate care due to issues of drug and alcohol abuse, criminal behavior, mental illness, or abuse and neglect.
“These children may or may not have physical special needs but often have emotional and behavioral challenges,” Anne says. “This program is subsidized by the state, so there is no cost to the adoption and parents often receive an on-going subsidy to care for the children even after the adoption is finalized.”
Anne says that there are good and not-so-good aspects to adopting through this program.
“I have heard that a very popular place for the state to recruit foster and adoptive families for the special needs programs is at gay pride events,” she says. “The state knows that LGBT couples are often in a really good place to be parents through adoption because their choices for love and family have always had to be so conscious and so brave. They have the emotional wherewithal to handle the issues of grief and loss and not fitting a particular mold that comes with creating a family through adoption.”
But here’s the catch:
“The state seeks out LGBT prospective parents, yet Wisconsin does not allow LGBT families to marry and have the same rights and protections as straight families. I think our policy makers need to take a close look at the hypocrisy in that,” Anne says. “We ask the LGBT community to care for our most vulnerable children and then do not give them legal and financial support.”
Perhaps the most common adoption path is to have the home study done here in Wisconsin, and then find a birthmother match through out-of-state agencies that place with LGBT families.
Anne says sometimes LGBT families are fortunate enough to be matched with a birthmother who lives in a state where they can both adopt and can both be listed on the birth certificate, such as Illinois. Sometimes they are matched with a birthmother who lives in a state where only one of them can finalize the adoption, but a second, two-parent adoption is done later in Wisconsin.
And, of course, lesbian couples can choose to create their family through the use of known or non-known sperm donors, and then do a two-parent adoption to make both mothers legal parents.
Rita Mae Reese & Elizabeth Perry When Elizabeth set out to become a mom, it was with the intention of raising her child on her own. She feared what could happen if she inseminated with a known donor, so she opted for the use of a sperm bank. Her first baby died only a few days after he was born. Elizabeth grieved, but felt determined to try again. When she met Rita Mae, she had already inseminated. By the time they began dating, she knew she was pregnant. When she told Rita Mae, they both knew that it was “right” and that they would raise the child together. In San Francisco, Rita Mae was able to adopt Charlotte with no complications and very little cost.
When Rita Mae gave birth to their second daughter from the same donor, it was not so simple or affordable. They had moved to Wisconsin. Anne Johnson was very supportive during her home visit, but the legal situation in Wisconsin makes LGBT adoption difficult.
Anne says, “Because I have care and compassion for the barriers they are facing, I try to be as supportive, empathetic and non-invasive in my LGBT home studies as possible.”
Elizabeth and Rita Mae enlisted the services of Madison attorney Christopher Krimmer to help them navigate the legal system so that Elizabeth could successfully adopt Maxine.
“I see my role as taking what is a family-in-fact and providing them with the legal options to become a family under the law. Unfortunately, without some affirmative steps on their part, the rights of the non-biological parent are quite limited,” Christopher says. “Unlike married couples, the gay and lesbian couple must take legal action to establish their rights as a family. It is unfair but reality.”
In order for Wisconsin lesbians to adopt their partner’s biological child, the biological mother must first terminate her parental rights, and then the couple performs a two-parent adoption. The legal argument and procedure is not settled law and not all judges will grant them.
“It is not uncommon to be in court watching a judge grant parental rights to the non-biological parent and both parents shedding a tear. The fact that their family is being ‘legitimized’ by the court as a true and equal family is quite emotional and rewarding,” Chris says. “This legal acknowledgment builds on the foundation of their family and strengthens the family dynamics.”
And, Elizabeth and Rita Mae gain strength from one another.
“Child rearing has been great,” Elizabeth says. “We are a good mix of parenting styles. I am a goal-oriented overachiever, and Rita Mae is open-minded, sensitive, and calm.”
Rita Mae adds that they have same ideas about parenting and what a family is. “We really respect each other and work things out between one another and with the kids. And we have the same pace about things: we love to walk around the block, make tea, and draw pictures. That’s pretty much what you will see us doing.”
Rita Mae’s mother, Maxine, lives with them as well. Baby Maxine was named for her grandmother, and both girls’ last names are “Reese Perry.”
Anne views LGBT people as being more open-minded when it comes to defining family. “My experience has been that LGBT couples have a more open notion of what family is, therefore they make the best clients for open adoption—they have less hang-ups and fears about having a birth family involved in their lives,” she says.
Anne says that perhaps this is because LGBT people know they will never have a “traditional” family, so they have different expectations and fewer idealized perceptions about how their family will look.
James Candler and Paul Lorentz When James and Paul began their fostering certification, they knew they wanted to stay clear of infants and babies. They caught flack from friends and family for taking on “damaged goods” by adopting a child who had been living in the foster system after having a rough home life. Stewart’s human services file did read “like a nightmare,” according to Paul. But that didn’t dampen their resolve.
“We’ve never viewed Stewart and Leon as damaged goods. Prejudice works both ways, actually,” Paul says. “These folks who made bad choices in their lives were very warm and welcoming toward us.”
Paul was referring to Stewart’s birth family. When they were undergoing the process of adopting Stewart, several members of his family came to James and Paul’s home to check them out.
“We had strong allies going forward in the birth family. We were mutually supportive, always focusing on what was best for Stewart,” James says.
That support extended toward Stewart’s birth parents. James and Paul accompanied Stewart’s birthmother in court and witnessed her moving statement in favor of them adopting her son. Her plea was so strong and sincere that Stewart’s birthfather reversed his negative stance and relinquished his rights.
“It was heartbreaking, but it felt good that they trusted us,” James says.
When Paul and James began the process of adopting their younger son, Leon, they had contact with his birthmother, too. Leon was coming to them after having been raised by his birthmother until he was five, then fostered by a straight couple. He always envisioned that he would eventually return to his birthmother.
Paul says, “When Leon moved in, he said: ‘Why don’t you guys have moms?’—meaning wives. It worked in our favor that neither of us were moms, since he was so close with his mom and was having trouble letting go of the idea of returning to her.”
“It wasn’t that I wasn’t with a mom with Paul and James, but just that I wasn’t with my mom,” Leon says. Now he needed to learn to trust that they would be there for him long-term.
“I made the mistake of thinking that Paul and James would pass me on like my last foster parents had, so I acted out and didn’t give them a good first impression,” Leon says.
Trust was an issue for Stewart, as well. “Adults take for granted that kids inherently trust adults and believe they are looking out for them,” Paul says. “With both boys, there was a strong sense of the opposite: adults not only don’t care, they at best are merely incompetent, and at worst they are out to hurt/abuse kids.”
Stewart recognizes now that he can trust, and has advice for other children in foster care awaiting placement: “I knew at some point things were going to work out. When you are placed in a family, just say to yourself, ‘I’m going to make the best out of this and not worry what’s next. I’m just going to live my life now,’” Stewart says. “Ask yourself if the people you are placed with are respectful and do they care about you.”
He goes on to give advice to children being placed with LGBT parents. “For kids who have a problem with gay parents, remember they are not trying to get you into their lifestyle. What matters is do they respect you, do they care, are they fair?” he says. “To me, it was never an issue. I just said, ‘Okay, this is how they live.’ What’s so different?”
Paul and James have learned and grown right alongside their sons. “We discovered a massive well of strength. Parenting has challenged who we are, and has challenged us as a couple,” Paul says. “We have had a lot of support from our families. They adopted these boys, too, and we all have learned about each other through this experience.”
James says, “It has made us stronger as a couple. We get told we did a wonderful job as parents, but people don’t give a lot of agency to the boys for how well things are going.”
Both boys have had very little notice from their Sun Prairie classmates about the fact that they have gay dads. In the rare case that he is asked about it, Leon says, “So what if they are gay? There are lots of people who are. Get a life.”
“It’s not been smooth or easy, but it has been rewarding,” says James. “I would bring in more children. I would encourage people to do it. There are a lot of great kids right in our backyards that need a home.”
Anne emphasized that infant adoption is getting harder and harder to do. “It is becoming more expensive, wait times are becoming longer, and there simply are fewer babies available for adoption,” she says. “Less than 4% of women facing a crisis pregnancy in the U.S. will make an adoption plan for their child. Most choose to terminate the pregnancy or raise the child themselves—or ask a family member to raise the child. With changes in international adoption, adopting an infant through an international program is all but impossible. Therefore, there is an ever-increasing demand for infants within the U.S.”
The silver lining is that there are children who are being adopted that otherwise wouldn’t be.
“Because of the shortage of infants, the focus is shifting to adopting children who are older or have special needs,” Anne says. “What a great outcome for those children. The new world of adoption is challenging people to walk the walk that parenting is really about wanting to make the difference in the life of a child and change the world one child at a time.”