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Fostering Family

Vermont queer couples go all out for parenthood


Published July 30, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Levi Stanley Nelson-Miles wasn't born with so many surnames. He picked up the last two just over a year ago when a family court judge finalized his adoption by John and Keith Nelson-Miles. The boy and his two dads immediately went out to celebrate. The 7-year-old Levi got his ear pierced and then savored his favorite food, pizza.

Before his adoption, Levi was just one of the 1200 to 1700 children in foster care under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. According to Diane Dexter, chief of adoptions for the state of Vermont, about 10 percent of these children require adoption: "These are children whom a judge has determined cannot and should not be returned to their families, typically because of abuse, neglect or abandonment," she explains. "Most of these children are not being given up by their families voluntarily."

But the foster-parent pool is aging. "We don't have enough foster families who are willing to adopt the number of kids who are available," Dexter says. "We need parents today for the children available today."

Under the auspices of Project Family -- a joint project of SRS and the Lund Family Center -- Dexter is actively seeking gay and lesbian couples to serve as permanent parents for more than a hundred girls and boys, aged between 9 and 17, who became adoptable this month. Increasingly, social workers are finding that queer couples are ideally suited to care for children who have fallen through the cracks. Nine of the 20 adoptions currently in process at the Lund Family Center involve double dads or moms.

Levi Nelson-Miles, a sturdy blond boy, came to John and Keith two years ago. He was 6 years old, stood 51 inches tall and weighed 72 pounds, "Daddy" John recites. "Papa" Keith chimes in with updated statistics: 55-and-a-half inches tall, 100 pounds. Levi liked his two dads immediately, he says, because they were fun. What does he remember about his foster family? "They beat me."

The Nelson-Miles family occupies a modest hillside bungalow home in Barre. Levi has his own small living room and a bedroom, which he shows off, hastily picking dirty clothes up off the floor. The TV is in the grown-up living room. His dads strictly limit his viewing.

There are plenty of rules in this family. "No playing ball in the house. I have to make my bed and vacuum. I sort my clothes for the laundry..." Levi recites. "Papa" is the greater disciplinarian of his parents, he says, pointing across the kitchen table at Keith, a Computer Assisted Design draftsman. John, an instructional assistant, is more talkative.

"We have a good home, good jobs and a pretty structured life," John says. In May 2001 the two men celebrated their civil union after three years together. "We were ready for a child," John continues. "We looked at a photo of Levi, and I already knew this was our child. He's had a tough little life -- he had to leave his foster home and was in a respite home. We both went and read his file. We knew some of what to expect."

Not surprisingly, having a child has changed both men's lives. The boy has needed a lot of structure and consistency to channel his energy in positive directions. "I don't regret getting Levi at all -- and it's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Keith admits. He explains that John, who gave up his social work career to be there for Levi, has taken on many of the child-care responsibilities.

"When Levi came... it wasn't about us anymore. It was all about Levi," says John. "We weren't adopting this boy so we could have him be in daycare. When we adopted him, SRS offered us respite care and we said no thanks. I miss doing my social work, but you know what? I love looking out that window and watching him go down the street on his bike."

"A Child, a Challenge, a Chance" is the motto of the Project Family Web site, which makes clear that the children need another opportunity to be with a family who will love them unconditionally. Their first families have failed them badly.

Gay and lesbian families seem to appreciate that need for a second chance, according to SRS's Dexter, the mother of one biological and two adopted daughters. And they may be uniquely suited to parent children with physical, emotional or behavioral problems. "Gay men and lesbians understand about feeling different from everyone else, being an outsider," Dexter suggests. "That makes them good at parenting children who may have a learning disability or are of a different race."

Wanda Audette of the Lund Family Center agrees with that assessment. "We've had great experiences with gay and lesbian adoptive families," she says. "They are often more willing to take on the challenge because they've already been up against a challenge."

The process for becoming an adoptive parent is not easy. Anyone with a criminal history, complaints in family court or a pattern of motor-vehicle violations, especially drunken driving, is immediately disqualified. A working phone is required, but indoor plumbing is not. Having other kids is usually fine, too.

Once a single person or a couple has decided to adopt, the first step is a home study to assess a potential parent's suitability. Through this process, the social worker also gets a sense of which child and parents "fit" together. Audette admits that some kids are hesitant about being adopted by a lesbian or gay couple. "But that's usually a fear that some role will go unfilled, not knowing who will cook and who will play catch," Dexter says. "Mostly they want to know, 'Am I gonna be safe, and will they like me?'"

Audette relates other reactions: "Some say, 'Aren't I lucky? I never had a dad, and now I have two.'" Some kids are so damaged by males in their previous families that having two moms feels safe.

A pre-adoption trial period typically lasts six months. Some kids may be on their best behavior until after the adoption is finalized, Audette says, while others may test their new families right away.

"The key to success," says Dexter, "is for the families or the individual adopting to be really honest: 'Is this working for me?' These kids come with baggage, and so do we."

The Nelson-Miles family celebrated their first anniversary as Levi's "forever family" in June. John and Keith offer their experience to counsel prospective gay adoptive parents. "You really need to be out at work," Keith says. "I sat down with my boss and told him I was in a gay relationship and we were adopting a child, and asked did he have a problem with that. There was no problem. So now, if John has to work and Levi is sick, I can stay home with him, or I can go on a class field trip just like any other parent."

Keith advises that couples decide ahead of time, before even meeting their adoptive child, what they want the child to call them. "We had to switch [from our names] to 'Daddy' and 'Papa,' and that was a little hard to always remember," he says.

John suggests parents keep a journal so they can identify a child's patterns of behavior and figure out their significance. The journal he and Keith kept helped them piece together why Levi had "bathroom accidents" each time they went to Maine: The route takes Levi past the foster home in which he was traumatized.

Both men heap high praise on the book Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children by Dr. Daniel Hughes. Adoptive parents whose kids may arrive with "attachment problems" -- an inability to trust or bond with others -- should read it, they say. Keith and John also recommend getting extended families involved with the child as much as possible, and freely showing affection -- "whatever is normal for your relationship."

And don't let the fear of what might happen rule your life, says John. Keith agrees, recalling an incident that took place during the Take Back Vermont backlash. The day Keith introduced himself to Levi's school class as his "other dad," he says, "One of the mothers spent the rest of the day glaring in my direction."

When difficult things happen, John says, "Step back and ask yourself, 'Is it really that bad?' In the larger scheme of things, when the day is done, it's just another day."