A same-sex couple's struggle to adopt

Rachel Stewart Johnson / Fall 2013 Posted in Politics+Society Tagged adoption, alumni

Image: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

Image: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

This fall, Michael George and Chad Lord mark a milestone: the fifth anniversary of their quest to adopt a newborn. After varied efforts and thousands of dollars, the married couple from Washington, D.C., remains childless.

Two spaces in their home sit unused: One is a nursery, fully furnished. The other is "Grandma's apartment," a basement unit the couple built for George's mother, who intends to move in when a baby arrives. Preparing these rooms has been one way for George, SAIS '03, and Lord to busy themselves as they wait for an infant. Another way has been to work on the one task that might hasten the day they become fathers: trying to attract the notice of a birthmother who will choose them to parent her child. At least twice a week since they started the Facebook page "Chad and Mike's Open Adoption," the couple posts a new photograph to illustrate their lives. Some have captions that repeat a phrase: We can't wait to bring our child to watch the Nats play in person! We can't wait to bring a little one here to sled! We can't wait to enjoy family days at our local museums! A portrait is painted of a quaint childhood: watching the backyard bunnies eat up the spring's black-eyed Susans or swinging on a tree that the neighborhood kids call "Napoleon."

As the sixth year of their journey begins, the men are still waiting. Says George, "There are those moments where you slow down and you start thinking, 'When is this going to happen? What's wrong with us?'"

A Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in March found that 70 percent of adults under age 40 support gay marriage. Thirteen states have legalized it, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that gay married couples cannot be denied federal benefits. But gay couples trying to adopt children learn that both legal and cultural impediments still exist.

Most states lack legal protections to guard against favoring heterosexual parents over gays and lesbians in adoption and foster care placements, and the landscape has historically been unfriendly toward same-sex couples as parents. A 1977 law in Florida that stood for more than 30 years expressly forbade any homosexual person from adopting a child. Mississippi enacted a law in 2000, still standing, that forbids joint adoption by same-sex couples. A handful of other states have effectively blocked such adoption using less direct language, such as Utah's prohibition of adoption by anyone cohabiting outside a legally valid marriage. Emily Hecht-McGowan of the Family Equality Council says her organization receives frequent requests for help from same-sex couples seeking to adopt. The lack of legal protections are often to blame. She explains, "Even in places where they don't encounter bias or stigma outright, if there's a same-sex couple that wants to create a family in a state where it's not statutorily mandated—if it's not written into the law that unmarried couples can petition to jointly adopt children—only one of those people can adopt the child. So in those cases, the child only has a legal relationship with one parent."

The Family Equality Council is among several advocacy organizations backing a federal fix: the Every Child Deserves a Family Act. Reintroduced in Congress this year after it was first sponsored by lawmakers in 2009, the law would prohibit the use of sexual orientation or marital status as a criterion for placing a child with foster or adoptive parents. Although the measure would ease bias against same-sex families, advocates don't expect it to pass soon. "But it's been a great opportunity to do education on this issue," Hecht-McGowan offers. "When the time is right, we'll be able to move it."

Legal problems for gay and lesbian parents extend beyond U.S. borders. Although international adoptions are now in decline for Americans overall, this route was long a viable path to parenthood for many. The narrowing opportunity has already been effectively cut off for the gay community. Dawn Davenport, executive director of Creating a Family, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization, advises against a gay or lesbian couple trying an out-of-country arrangement. "Quite frankly, it's not usually a good choice because most foreign countries do not knowingly place a child with homosexual parents," she says.

Then there is the lingering problem of a culture long imbued with the belief that children need the complementary roles that mothers and fathers provide. "Virtually every birthmother who comes to us with an adoption plan, the reason she's making a plan is because she wants her child to have a mother and a father," says Charles Anderson, director of professional services for the New Mexico Christian Children's Home. Anderson did not say he would turn away a gay couple seeking to adopt. He simply would offer little optimism that they could make it out of the pool of candidates.

The Catholic Church has been an opponent of same-sex adoption. Catholic Charities USA shut down its state-supported foster care and adoption programs in Illinois in 2011 rather than comply with a newly passed state law prohibiting bias against the gay community in the placement of children. In March of this year, Bishop David J. Malloy of the Diocese of Rockford issued a letter in which he called the state's progress toward legalizing same-sex marriage a "deplorable misstep." He went on to cite the impact on children, "who have a right to a mother and a father." Penny Wiegert, editor of the Catholic newspaper The Observer and director of communications for the Rockford Diocese, wrote in an email correspondence that the diocese "really had no other ethical choice" but to discontinue state-funded adoptions. It was morality over practicality. "The decision was a sacrifice," she added.

George and Lord received a mixed response early in their adoption journey. "There are a lot of adoption agencies out there that are religiously based," says George. "We had talked to a few—some of them had said, 'We'll work with you, but you're roommates to us.' Several other adoption agencies never even returned our phone calls." They eventually chose the Independent Adoption Center, an adoption facilitator that touts its inclusivity. "At that point, we'd been together eight years, and we were in our late 30s, and we thought, we're too old to pretend," George says. "We said we have to find an adoption agency that will not only tolerate us being in their pool but will celebrate it."

Once they signed on with an adoption agency, they next needed to complete a home study process to show they could provide a fit home for a child. Home study—which any potential adoptive parents must complete—includes a battery of assessments, such as in-person interviews, financial reports, and home inspections. It is also meant to prepare and educate prospective parents. This process lagged for George and Lord, in what the couple considers random misfortune. The social worker assigned to their case left her position before their file was complete. A second individual then caused a delay when a report went missing. "We were unlucky," says Lord.

More than a year later, having completed the home study, the couple found themselves largely on their own to tackle the biggest obstacle: making themselves known to prospective birthmothers. For most adoptive parents these days, that means more than simply waiting for a phone call. Birthmother searches now crisscross social media, with those who are well-resourced achieving results that take on the look of a marketing campaign: YouTube videos, toll-free phone numbers, jazzy personal websites with domain names like adoptyourbaby .org or gayadoptivedads.com. "It's like opening a small business," George says. Third-party professionals now pitch their services to adoption hopefuls, offering help setting up a website, for example, or creating an eye-catching profile.

"I came into this with a preconceived notion of an agency that was going to help walk us through this," Lord says. "But the truth is, it's independent. So it didn't quite click at first what that meant. It's been kind of shocking to me how much marketing we need to do, and that's not our strong suit."

George agrees that there is a mismatch between the self-promotion that now characterizes birthmother searches and the introverted natures that he and Lord share. "That's another thing that we didn't realize getting into this—how much more vulnerable you are when you have to expose this very private issue of starting a family with as large an audience as possible," he says. And then there are the heartbreaks. In 2011, a pregnant woman contacted George and Lord and led them to believe she'd chosen them to adopt her unborn child. They traveled out of the D.C. area to meet her. They stepped up their preparations, furnishing the nursery and purchasing an infant car seat. Not long before the woman's due date, she stopped returning their calls and emails.

Then the couple fell victim to a hoax in July of this year, when another woman contacted them, claiming to be scheduled for a Caesarian section the following week. Scams targeting prospective adoptive parents are not uncommon, and agencies do have some safeguards in place to detect them. The men had been told to be wary of women claiming to be pregnant with twins. This call? A triplet pregnancy, they were told. Despite the warnings, they believed her. "Triplets seemed so extraordinary that we wondered why anyone would make that up," says George. Most convincingly, in George and Lord's view, she emailed them an ultrasound image.

It was the adoption counselors at the Independent Adoption Center who uncovered the hoax, after two days of what George called a "flurry of excitement." The same ultrasound image could be found via an Internet search. The experience led George and Lord to look back on their extended contact with the expectant mother two years prior. Could that have been a scam as well?

Michael George grew up as the only child of a single mother in Rolla, Missouri. "I was a latch-key kid, like a lot of kids were at that time," he says. He and his friends rode their bikes everywhere, built collections of Star Wars action figures, and swam in the city pool. He had a beagle named Buster. "I was a band geek," says George. "And not even a very good one. I'd get out my trombone, probably to the collective groan of my entire neighborhood. In the winters we'd keep Buster inside the house, and he would howl next to me when I played."

George was interested in a wider world. He eventually chose a move west to attend Pomona College in California. When the opportunity arose to spend a summer in Russia, the kid from the Ozarks took it. George also spent a semester in Prague and a summer in London before earning his bachelor's degree in international relations. Next came a tour with the Peace Corps in Armenia. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work toward his master's degree, also in international relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, taking classes in the evening while working for the U. S. Department of State. In 2000, a friend introduced him to Chad Lord.

Lord, now a lobbyist with the National Parks Conservation Association, was another small-town product, who also had a childhood dog named Buster. He moved from his home state of Minnesota to D.C. as a young man and began his career working in HIV/AIDS advocacy. His first full-time job was with the Human Rights Campaign.

George tries to capture what made an early date for the two memorable, recalling how Lord surprised him by waiting with a flower outside a classroom building. "This was one of my favorite moments with Chad," George says. "I had just finished a long day at work, and then studying in classes, and I was tired. And to go outside—it was a complete surprise to me that Chad was waiting there with that flower. It was so sweet."

Over the evening that followed, Lord mentioned that he wanted to have children some day. For earlier generations of gay men, marriage and parenting weren't typically in the plan. As a boy, George assumed he'd be a father one day, but that early notion changed when he came out during college. "In the '90s, the gay story was very much about personal acceptance," he says. "The thought was, you weren't going to ever get married, you weren't going to ever have kids, but you might finally be accepted by your family and friends, you might have happiness in your personal relationship."

The couple became legal domestic partners in 2004. When the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, they knew they would marry. Still, together at that point for a decade and sporting rings since their partnership was legally recognized years earlier, they viewed the marriage license as a formality. Persuaded to plan an event in which others could share, they wed in 2011 in the living room of their newly purchased Dutch Colonial home in D.C.'s Friendship Heights.

Every year, there are parts of the couple's adoption file that expire and must be redone. As their investment of time and resources grows, and as they inch further into their 40s, there have been times when the men have considered ending the search. One such moment arrived last year. "We were really considering over the fall and winter whether we were going to renew our home study or not—whether we were going to continue with adoption," says George. "We've had some big discussions and decided, no, this is something that's really important to us."

The couple suspects they've been too cautious. They've considered altering the criteria they've established for a birthmother, inviting the possibility of a child with alcohol or drug exposure, a family history of mental illness, or other developmental concerns. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin puts it bluntly: "Sometimes gay men are left to adopt the children that no one else really wants." Again committed to sticking it out, the two are devising a plan to purchase ad space on Facebook, something they have done in the past. They are encouraged by the fact that the number of fans of their page surged recently, exceeding 450.

David Wing-Kovarik, executive director and CEO of Families Like Ours, another nonprofit that supports the adoption community, urges caution. All that Internet marketing, he says, is not without risks. "I have not seen statistics that say one way or the other if it actually helps," he explains. "For a lot of families, it can set them up for some heartache. They have to be really careful." Not only can couples reveal too much about themselves, Wing-Kovarik warns, they can also create unrealistic expectations about their ability to find a birthmother. Lord and George may have felt that undertow. The woman who scammed them this year, they acknowledge, was among that recent surge of fans.

Earlier this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for landmark cases regarding same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia provided this comment early in the proceedings: "If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there's considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family—whether that is harmful to the child or not."

The American Sociological Association disagrees. In the amicus brief it submitted to Scalia and his fellow justices, the ASA stated, "The clear and consistent consensus in the social science profession is that across a wide range of indicators, children fare just as well when they are raised by same-sex parents when compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents." That sort of willful blindness doesn't surprise Charlotte Patterson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. She is an expert in the psychology of sexual orientation, with her first published work on the children of gay and lesbian parents appearing more than 20 years ago. She and others have examined numerous child outcomes and have never reported that knowing the sexual orientation of a child's parents can be used as a predictor of how that child will do. Instead, children of gay parents are subject to the same influences as children of heterosexual couples. "The factors that affect all children's development affect the development of children with lesbian and gay parents—economic factors are important, for example," Patterson says. Interest in the field has long since moved beyond addressing whether same-sex couples can make good parents to the finer-grained questions of how they typically parent. There is nothing about being homosexual that makes one ill-suited for parenthood. "I don't really see that as a debatable conclusion today," Patterson says.

Cherlin believes that the saga that Lord and George are experiencing could prove to be an asset for their child. He has noted a particular doggedness that characterizes gay men who achieve parenthood. "Only the ones who really want to adopt children end up doing it because it's such a difficult process," he says. "So those gay men are committed parents, and often do an excellent job." As George and Lord wait to be given that chance, their friends watch and wait with them. Ann Brickley, who sees the couple frequently, says the men don't often bring up the topic. "They're not ones to go on complaining about their lives," she says. They supported her as she and her husband welcomed their first child last year, betraying no resentment of her pregnancy. "They've been gentlemen," she says. She speculates on the emotions involved in their wait. "I think there's probably a process of grieving that they go through."

"They just keep putting themselves out there," says Katherine Atherton-Wood, a longtime friend and herself an adoptive parent. A follower of the couple's Facebook page made a mistake not long ago in response to a photo of the men with a baby: "Finally! Good for you and congrats. What a lucky baby." But the baby was Brickley's child. "Thanks," George responded. "She is actually our friend's daughter. Which in our book makes her one lucky baby. But we're still hoping to find the right birthmother." It's always a friend's daughter, always a niece or a nephew. George and Lord—a couple with an unfinished love story—press on. "We want a baby. We want a family. We want kids," Lord says. "We're going to be good dads."

Rachel Stewart Johnson has a PhD in developmental psychology from Stanford University and is a former lecturer in human development and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. She has written for health care companies, Pomona College Magazine, and University of Denver Magazine.

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