GLBT families matter
Published Thursday, 23-Mar-2006 in issue 952
It is April 2004. At Family Matters’ Soc Hop in the main ballroom at The Center in Hillcrest, many children and their parents mill about with hula hoops and snacks. The room is decorated with balloons and crepe paper. Fifties music blares from the overhead speakers – Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, The Everly Brothers. The parents are relaxed and seem comfortable with being parents. They wear washable clothing. All their attention is focused on their children. One beautiful 3-year-old boy from Russia runs toward a woman with his arms up and a big smile on his face. A woman cradles her 1-year-old son in her arms – a son she bore herself – conceived through artificial insemination. He looks just like her. Her partner of several years beams. If it were not for the same-sex genders of the couples here, we could be in any small town in America.
The practice of having and adopting children by GLBT people is a growing phenomenon. In San Diego, Family Matters reports having more than 1,500 parents – about 15 percent are single parents – in their membership, and their numbers are growing rapidly.
Family Matters is a social and support organization for GLBT parents and their children. It began in 1995 after the joining of several smaller groups of gay and lesbian parents (Moms & Me and Dads Too, Considering Parenthood and Dads in the Park) that had informally gathered over the years. They are now one big, happy family going by the name Family Matters, and are all-inclusive of different family structures. According to their Web site, “The mission of San Diego Family Matters is to promote and sustain the well-being of families with one or more parent who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender as well as those considering parenthood in Southern California.”
There are large numbers of children nationwide who are waiting for a loving couple or single to adopt them. Some same-sex couples, knowing how it feels to be an outsider, choose to adopt from local child protective service organizations. Other couples visit doctors for artificial insemination, wanting to experience the birth process. A few contract with a surrogate mother or surragocy agency. Several same-sex couples have also found success by co-parenting together with shared custody. Some arrange to adopt infants from other countries where there are fewer restrictions on adoption. And still others arrange private adoptions through local private adoption agencies.
Kelly has been in a relationship with Kristen for six years. Kelly has one 16-year-old son, John, which she had with a previous partner. Four years ago, Kristen gave birth to a boy, Cameron, and two years ago, Kelly gave birth to a girl, Autumn. Cameron carries Kristen’s maiden name, and Autumn carries Kelly’s last name.
Kelly is a software engineer and Kristen is a realtor, so with her flexible time, Kristen is able to take the kids to the doctor and dentist.
Kristen had considered getting pregnant and raising a child on her own prior to meeting Kelly.
“What motivated you to have children?” I ask Kelly.
“Every morning, we go into his room and look at him in his crib, and he looks up at you, and gives you a big smile. I’m looking forward to helping Max grow and mature, to coach him and help him through his own mistakes. It is a joy to see the world through Max’s eyes.”
“The usual reasons,” she says. “We just wanted them. Since we’re both in our early 40s, we figured it’s now or never. We used artificial insemination.”
“Was it costly?”
“No, our insurance covered impregnation, but not the sperm. We bought it from the sperm bank for $300 to $500 per try,” Kelly says. “We wanted the biological connection. And we didn’t have to go through the adoption process. Of course, there were the nine months of pregnancy. Mine was an easy, enjoyable pregnancy.
“This time it’s been uneventful. The younger children are in preschool at the Jewish Community Center, where there are other children with two moms. We live a very ordinary life: We live in the suburbs, there are lots of kids in the neighborhood, we’re ‘out’ at work, and we belong to Family Matters, where we go to playgroup once a month, and we meet people that are like us. We had playgroup at our house recently, and invited the neighbor kids over, too. It was great. We have an ordinary life. We’re just living our lives like everybody else. Our kids are not the only kids at school with a family with a different configuration, so it’s not so hard. When John was growing up, he was the only one.”
Sandy Putirka and Beth Bertelsen met 12 years ago through a mutual friend. They were friends for about a year. During that time, Beth’s relationship ended. After a while, Beth and Sandy started dating. In about three years, they made a commitment to each other. Beth had always wanted to have children, but the people she had previously dated hadn’t. Beth was attracted to Sandy in part because she was so good with kids. Sandy slowly came around to the idea of having children. First they bought a house. Then they tried to get Beth pregnant with artificial insemination for two and a half years. It was pretty emotionally draining for them. Beth wanted to bear a child. Sandy didn’t especially want to herself, but when it failed for Beth, she tried and that didn’t work either. They continued trying artificial insemination, and at the same time they started the adoption process. They are happy now that it didn’t work out because they got to adopt James. They went through San Diego County Adoption.
“I think everyone should have to go through psychological evaluations, the home inspection and the parenting classes because it is such a valuable process,” Beth says. “It wasn’t easy and took some time, but it was worth it. It took about a year to become licensed for foster care and to adopt.”
Beth says James was four months old when she held him for the first time.
Sandy is rolling her eyes.
“When I held him, Sandy didn’t think she would get a turn,” Beth says.
“We were called on a Wednesday, we went to see him on a Thursday, and we had to make a decision by Friday,” Sandy says. “We had to pick him up on Friday. We didn’t have diapers because we had put in for a 0 to 5-year-old, so we didn’t know if we’d need diapers. And there we were out shopping at 10:00 on Thursday night for diapers. One of our buddies gave us her daughter’s crib and dresser. On Friday, we picked up James and the crib. We asked our friend to hold James while we put the crib together.”
Sandy took three months off from work, without pay, to stay with James, and Beth had flexibility with her business, so they were able to spend lots of time with him, bonding with him and getting to know him.
“His name is James Thomas Bertelsen-Putirka,” Beth says. “We’re pretty well-adjusted to having a baby. Now it’s a matter of dealing with an independent 2-1/2-year-old who definitely has a mind of his own.”
I ask them, “What are the biggest rewards of raising a child?”
“It’s when you hold him in your arms, and he looks into your eyes, and he says,‘I love you, Mommy,’” Beth says. “It’s also made us much closer.”
“We talk all the time about how James is responding to discipline,” Sandy says. “Everything is a test; he’s very creative. We understand now how much our parents gave us.”
They are now in the process of getting their paperwork together for child number two. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s a girl or a boy.
“I have this picture of Dustin that we took when we first met him. He looks so much different now. When we first met him, he was… Now he doesn’t even look like the same boy.”
Ryland Madison is president of Family Matters in San Diego. He and his husband, Mark Fisher, have been together for 20 years. They adopted a baby boy recently, Maxwell Fisher Madison.
“We wanted to have children, and we didn’t see any difference between forms of obtaining a child,” Ryland says. “… A single woman we knew had a daughter, but didn’t want the added responsibility of another child. She approached us a day or two after she knew she was pregnant. With private adoption, the biological parent has some say about where the child is placed. We are still in touch with her by phone. She hasn’t visited him yet.”
“Is there any danger that she would try to get him back?” I ask.
“I don’t forsee that. She has been very supportive of us. And she did approach us. Anyway, legally the adoption is finalized.”
“How long did it take for the adoption to finalize?”
“Three months from the time he was born until the adoption was finalized. We met with the mother every week and had lunch. The mother was very cooperative. She helped with filling out documents. She would call us if she had questions. She has been very cooperative. We were there in the delivery room when he came out. We held him right away.”
“It sounds wonderful and relatively easy. Was it costly?”
“On average, a private adoption runs $8,000 to $12,000 direct expenses such as attorney fees, maternity clothes, time off from work, therapist, social worker, their social worker, biography, records, finger printing and parenting classes,” he says.
“Do you ever wonder why heterosexual parents don’t have to go through the same process?”
“Our heterosexual friends say it’s not fair. It’s not a matter of fair or not fair, it’s the way it is. In my opinion, every parent should have to take parenting classes.
“Some of the classes we participated in were through the Kinship Center in southern Orange County, and some were through San Diego County,” Ryland says. “At the Kinship Center, a third of the adoptive parents were gay, and they all lived in Orange County except us. When the instructor discussed the grieving process, the heterosexual parents could relate more to this than the gay and lesbian couples. There was not really the same grieving process for the gay and lesbian parents, since we had no expectations of conceiving.
“Our social worker, who had over 10 years of experience, said she had never seen a difference between children placed in gay or straight households, and in some cases the children in gay households were better socially adjusted and had better communication skills.
“I think it’s because when you’re a same-sex couple, you can’t hide – you have to come out to the kids in a way that they can understand. We wanted a child. Kids don’t get picked on because of having two dads. They get picked on because of what’s in front of them, like if they have curly hair. If Max comes home and complains that the kids taunt him at school about having curly hair, we will ask Max why he thinks they were doing that.”
“I’m assuming that you are enjoying parenting. Can you tell me something about that?” I ask.
“The fun part for me is to see this little being grow up in front of your eyes,” Ryland says. “Every morning, we go into his room and look at him in his crib, and he looks up at you, and gives you a big smile. I’m looking forward to helping Max grow and mature, to coach him and help him through his own mistakes. It is a joy to see the world through Max’s eyes.”
“Have you had any unusual challenges to deal with?” I ask.
“We were prepared that things would change in our relationship,” he says. “We decided that the relationship wouldn’t be only about Max. We took him out to dinner with us on Valentine’s Day. We’re lucky. He’s very well-behaved. A big chunk of the day goes to Max. There’s only so much you can do with one arm free. The challenge is how to get everything done and take care of Max. We’re not going to get everything done. We have to accept that.”
“It’s when you hold him in your arms, and he looks into your eyes, and he says, ‘I love you, Mommy,’”
Jaime and Tim have been partners for 23 years. Both had careers and did a lot of traveling until three years ago when Jaime left Hewlett Packard, where he had worked for 20 years. They moved from a condo in the Hillcrest area to a house in East County where they had more space. Jaime joined Tim in his real estate business, so they had a lot of flexibility with time. They started thinking about adopting a child. They went to county adoptions and found there were no obstacles to adopting.
“We’ve had the best county social worker anybody has ever had,” Jamie says.
They adopted a boy, Dustin, who is 10 years old, a year and a half ago. Now that their lives are smoothing out, they’re thinking about adopting another, younger boy, so the boys will have a family after Jaime and Tim are gone. They would like to adopt a Latino boy because Jaime is Latino, and Tim and Dustin are white.
Dustin was 8 1/2 when they adopted him. They wanted a child who was over 5 because older kids are very hard to place in homes, and they found that to be unfair.
“Did you have any challenges with him in the beginning?” I ask.
“Yes, the adjustment was a little rough at first, mainly because we had lived only with each other for 23 years, and we were set in our ways,” Jamie says. “It’s a lot smoother now. Dustin was placed in our home and realized this is where he’s going to live for the rest of his childhood. So we all had adjustments to make.”
Jamie continued: “The process of adoption started with home study by the county, where they study the home to determine if it is a safe and healthy home. Both the county and the state conduct home studies. Then we attended PRIDE [Parent Resource Information Development Education] classes with the county where we learned parenting skills, were trained to meet the needs of ‘special needs’ kids, and heard guest speakers.
“After you’ve passed those hurdles, they tell you about the child. They call it ‘the telling.’
“Then you get to meet the child. First it’s an hour visit, then two hours, then half a day, then whole day, then weekend. This happened over a period of two months. We could see that it was a good fit. We took him to swim lessons at the Joan Kroc Center in Hillcrest. We didn’t want to take him back to the group home.”
I look at the family picture Jaime sent me.
I comment,“He looks like a bright kid.”
“The most fitting thing I can say about Dustin is that he’s resilient and very optimistic. That’s his character,” Jamie says. “He’s had some academic problems, but he has progressed to almost grade level. He’s getting ready for middle school.”
Jame says it took about a year for the adoption to be finalized.
“I have this picture of Dustin that we took when we first met him,” he says. “He looks so much different now. When we first met him, he was… Now he doesn’t even look like the same boy.
“In the court room – we had invited family and friends – it became official,” Jamie continues. “Then Dustin was ours and we were a family.”
I ask Jaime what it cost them to adopt Dustin. He said there is no cost with county adoptions – no fees, no attorney fees, no fees at all.
“Do you see that your relationship with Tim has changed since you got Dustin?” I ask.
“Yes, trememdously. We’ve gotten closer,” he says. “Not that we were distant to begin with. So we act as one parenting unit. If there were the slightest gap between us, any kid would pick up on it – to get the answer he wants. We are always communicating about Dustin.”
I add, “It seems like relationships work best when the people in them are focused on something bigger than the relationship.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” he says.
Across the nation, for several decades, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have been adopting children. They have represented a small percentage of the GLBT population. In most cases, these adoptions were back-room deals. GLBT people who adopted often faced the threat of having their children taken from them.
Nowadays, adoptions by GLBT people are open and legal in several states, including California. Other states in which GLBT adoption is legal are: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, as well as Washington, D.C.
Avenues for adoption include county adoption agencies, private agencies and international agencies. Often, partners of people with children from previous marriages will adopt those children.
Once again, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are facing the threat of having their adopted children taken from them. Bills are being discussed, drafted or introduced that would ban them from adopting in the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. Massachusetts, Ohio and Vermont currently allow gays and lesbians to adopt legally.
Members of the religious right justify these bills saying that it is in the best interest of children to only allow straight couples to adopt them, despite the obvious dearth of qualified people willing or able to adopt. And it goes against the assertions of psychologists and social workers that there is no difference between the ability of GLBT parents and straight parents to raise healthy, responsible children.
There are between 6,000 and 7,000 children in foster care in San Diego County. Last year, 590 children were adopted in San Diego County. The county does not discriminate against anyone who wants to adopt. At any given time in San Diego County, there are 100-150 children that are available for adoption.
I asked Heidi Staples, program manager of San Diego County Adoptions, “In your opinion, is there any difference between the parenting abilities of lesbian or gay people and heterosexual people?”
“I don’t see any difference, except that some gay and lesbian couples are more understanding about children that have challenges,” she said. This is probably because gays have faced and met their own. We have kids who come from all walks of life. People are people, and we need people to adopt who are caring, stable and committed.”
The political aspect of this latest attack on GLBT people is apparent. The Bush administration has taken a beating on the war in Iraq, illegal wire tapping and other unethical or illegal activities. To deflect attention from their obvious shortcomings, they are accusing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of being immoral, unfit to marry and unfit to parent.
While the religious right has the strength of numbers and the conviction of their own righteousness, GLBT parents have a desire to protect the children they have adopted from being torn from their own loving homes.
It is no secret that sacrifice is inherent in raising a child. For 18 years or more, the child must be fed, clothed, housed, cared for, educated and nurtured. A child requires a tremendous commitment of time, resources and patience to prepare her/him for adulthood. Indeed, it is the needs of the child that must be considered first. And there are those in the GLBT community who are prepared to make such a sacrifice for the considerable rewards of parenting.
Many outside our community are standing up for GLBT families. Let us all stand up with them.All the parents interviewed are members of Family Matters. Family Matters’ Considering Parenthood Group will meet next on Saturday, March 18, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. The meetings are held at The Center, upstairs in room 201. The Center is located at 3909 Centre St. in Hillcrest.
Family Matters is putting on a spring fashion show fund-raiser on Sunday, March 26, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Abbey, located at 2825 Fifth Ave. For more information, call (619) 298-KID1 (5431). All proceeds benefit Family Matters.
For more information about Family Matters, visit www.sdfamilymatters.org or phone (619) 298-KID1 (5431).