Adoption bill hits home for two Tennessee couples

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When Jeff met his partner, Michael (not their real names), he made it clear they would adopt someday. A former foster child himself, he held in his heart a soft spot for children who he believes no one else wants.

Though there have always been hurdles for gay couples interested in adoption, Jeff and Michael’s plans came under direct attack when last month a total of six bills were filed in the Tennessee legislature regarding gay parenthood, all of which would ban adoption or foster parenthood by gay men and lesbians.

“We have a concern that there be some degree of anonymity,” Jeff said. “Be sure to note that there is a fear in the community of retribution. You don’t know who could call whom to thwart your efforts.”

Seemingly overnight, gay Tennesseans across the state went from a certain antipathy toward a proposed Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to outright rage that their already compromised access to adoption would be banned as well.

“We’re just in anguish over this,” said Jeff. “It dominates our thoughts everyday. We’ve already gone through all the steps. We’re just waiting for a child.”

Anyone in Tennessee interested in adopting has two options. They can go through the state department of child services programs. The other option is to utilize a private agency which will, in turn, use the state program or coordinate a private adoption. Private adoptions can occur between American citizens or through international agencies.

Prospective parents must attend a13 week program, named PATH (for Parents As Tender Healers), before they are certified as foster parents. Foster parenting is a common introductory route to the adoption process for both heterosexual partners as well as homosexual.

“We did it last summer,” said Jeff. “It was a wonderful experience. It solidified for us that we want to be parents. In our class there was one African-American couple, an older couple who’d already raised their own children, a young straight couple who were not able to have children, a lesbian couple and the two of us.”

“We were treated wonderfully,” he continued. “Even with our adoption agency now and most social workers we’ve worked with have been okay that we’re a gay couple.”

As with many couples in our community, Jeff and Michael bring with them children from a previous marriage who are active in their lives, and vice versa.

“They’re here on a typical visitation schedule,” Jeff said. “With their mother and us. I mean, we’re already parents. We’re good parents,” he said, confidently.

“Michael is a stay at home dad,” he said. “He works from home. We already have sort of a traditional slash non-traditional home. With him being at home, we’re available for pre-school age children.”

But that’s not all. One of the problems that has plagued the adoption industry from its inception is the overwhelming need prospective parents have for one child that is healthy, a baby of their own race.

“We’ve agreed to adopt sibling groups,” he added, “up to four kids. We’ll accept kids of all races. HIV-positive. Physical Disabilities. We both make a good living, so we can afford college or any medical responsibilities that may exist.”

Jeff and Michael have been waiting for a child for about eight months, an average amount of time, they’ve been told. They hope for a child soon, sharing no idea whether time is running out for them.

Adoption process differs state-to-state.

Medical professionals say love, not sexual orientation, is the key.

Most every successful quest for adoption by a gay couple has always included a mastery of nuance and the assistance of kind hearted, educated professionals.

Though Jeff and Michael are picture perfect prospective parents, in many instances their application would be turned down as soon as the same-sex relationship is revealed.

There are only nine states where gay couples can adopt together. For the rest, adoption is performed as a single parent agreement with contracts made between the two parents solidifying their relationship with each other and the child. Whether or not these contracts are binding is debatable.

Surrogacy is an option but it is very cost prohibitive. Jeff mentions a couple he knows who wanted a biological child, an infant, who had to pay over $100,000 for that luxury.

The most high profile bill to ban adoptions by homosexuals was filed last month by Senator Diane Black. The Republican from Hendersonville, located north of Nashville, told the Tennessean newspaper that she is taking on the adoption legislation in light of the proposed Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

“When we start putting children where we don’t have a traditional family,” she is quoted as saying, “eventually the value of the family will be weakened.” The Tennessean article pointed out that this bill would prefer no parent over a gay parent.

Only 65% of the nearly 10,000 children in state custody are currently in placement homes. Last year, only 1115 of those children were adopted.

That this bill would come about due to the success of the proposed gay marriage ban is no surprise. Only two states – Florida and Mississippi – have taken a similar leap.

In Florida, the ban was placed back in the 1970s during the height of the gay liberation movement in a kamikaze fashion similar to the “emergency” Defense of Marriage Acts that were passed in many states, including Tennessee, in reaction to the court decisions in Hawaii and Alaska that questioned the legitimacy of denying gay citizens marriage in 1996.

Mississippi is, well … Mississippi

For the rest of the nation, the jury had announced its decision years ago. In 1995, the American Psychological Association published the findings of its research on gay and lesbian parenting, where it concluded, “there is no evidence to suggest that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents or that psychological development among their children is compromised in any respect relative to that among offspring of heterosexual parents.” The American Academy of Family Physicians made a similar proclamation in 2003.

Catherine Fenner, the executive director of the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics concurs.

“In accordance with the national policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics on co-parenting,” she said, “the Tennessee Chapter does not support a ban on adoptions or foster care service by gay parents.”

“It is too important for a child to be in a loving home, regardless of the sexual orientation of the parent,” she added.

Those three organizations alone represent over 300,000 medical professionals.

Jordan Nicole arrives at the Ewell-Williams household

On Valentine’s Day, the Reverend Jerri Ewell and his partner, Jerry Williams, sent out an urgent e-mail to friends and family.

The subject line read: “Jordan Nicole is Here!”

“Hey all,” the message reads to an undisclosed recipient list. “I just wanted to let you know that our daughter, Jordan Nicole, was born last night at 6:10pm. She weighs 7lbs. 12 1/2 oz. and is 19 1/4 inches long. She also has a head full of blond hair!”

Rev. Ewell is pastor at Christian Community Church in Clarksville. The couple had been foster parents for the past three years when the opportunity to adopt landed in their lap.

“The birth mother is the cousin of a friend,” he said. “She became pregnant and was looking for someone to take care of the child. She told her cousin, our friend, who told us.”

The history the new parents tell is a common one.

“The goal, when we began foster parenting, was to see if we really wanted to adopt,” Ewell said. “We used it as a step to see if this is what we wanted to do. We worked with high risk kids and realized that, yes, this is what we want to do.”

“We didn’t go through the state,” he said. “One of the first points we made to the agency was to make sure they knew we were a gay couple. They said they had no problem with that.”

Ewell and Williams attended the 13-week PATH class where they learned to deal with the labeled “problem kids,” a skill they would need in the ensuing years.

Their first foster child was a particular challenge.

“It was this child’s last chance,” he said. “This was it, or he was going into permanent state custody until he turned 18. He came to our home for nine months and, at the end of the nine month period, he was able to be placed back at his first home!”

“He’s doing great now,” said Ewell. “We’re still in touch with him. Those nine months he stayed with us was the longest he’d ever stayed in any home. In fact, every one of the kids that stayed in our home from that point on were considered

‘last chance’ kids because the agency knew we could deal with them.”

The couple is now enduring the typical first weeks with a newborn baby. “No sleep,” he said. “Literally.”

“The feeling is hard to describe,” said Ewell. “It’s absolutely wonderful. I know my daughter is here. She’s home. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

“In the past, I’d talked to my parents, family, friends and all,” he added. “They said having your first child is such a unique experience, it … You can’t describe it. You have to experience it.”

“Now I understand.”

Ten days after her birth, Jordan’s birth mother will go to court to have her parental right dismissed. Jordan will live with Jerri and Jerry for six month when, at that time, they can formally petition for adoption.

The new parents share a degree of anxiety too. Friends have suggested that the state can’t take away a child who was chosen for adoption before a possible ban on gay adoptions is legislated. Given the ambiguity of the language in the bill, that point is debatable.

“If the ban happens,” said Ewell, “I’ve already decided. We’re moving. Nobody is gonna take out daughter away from us. Nobody.”

Elsewhere in Tennessee, Jeff and Michael speak of the proposed legislation just as passionately.

Who’s left to take care of the kids

“We’re being made to feel like we’re less capable of parenting than heterosexual people,” said Jeff. “In some of the cases that we’re looking at to adopt, it was heterosexual married people who were having sex with their children, doing drugs, not feeding these children.”

“Heterosexual married people,” he repeated, collapsing the generalization on which this bill stands.

As for now, Jeff and Michael are, in a sense, on the homestretch to adopting their own child.

“…and we’ve run the spectrum,” Jeff said, about the people they’ve met and the hurdles they’ve jumped to get to where they are. “Social workers have a great deal of input. We met some who’ve said they prefer gay to straight parents because they feel gay people are more compelled and have committed themselves more so than straight people.”

“Then there are some who pretty much hang up on us.”

“Once you’ve identified a child,” he said about the process they’re facing now, “they do a home study. You’re sent to a social worker who’s in charge of your adoption. A group of social workers, actually, sit around a table to match between the findings of the home study and the needs of the kids.”

“We’ve been told time and time again how amazing our home study is,” he added. He says it’s disheartening to know that their professionally approved qualifications could be deemed irrelevant by politicians who, comparably, have so little at stake.

“These kids are waiting for someone to love them,” he said, “and these conservatives are not the ones who are stepping up to adopt them. The hypocrisy is mind-boggling. The rhetoric is that they’re trying to do what’s best for these children and its not. Otherwise Diane Black would be adopting children and she’s not.”

“There’s already a system in place,” said Jeff. “Background checks, FBI checks, credit checks, the home study. They’re all used to qualify parents.”

Reverend Ewell agrees.

“Every person I talk to,” he said, “I tell them to write and call their representatives and let them know how stupid and biased this is. Tennessee has the highest number of kids in state custody. If they take away the right of gay people to foster and adopt these kids, I want to know who’s going to take care of them.”

“The state can’t afford it and there’s not enough foster homes."