In Florida, Utah and Mississippi, gay adoption by same sex couples is still prohibited. However, as progressive advocates and major child welfare organizations continue to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to adopt and/or be a foster parent, the numbers of individuals and couples who adopt are growing. In Illinois, for example, adoption by gays and lesbians is legal with an option for second parent adoption. “So many of our agency’s families are choosing international adoption, not just gay and lesbian families, but straight families, too,” says Davida Ellen Williams, Foster Care Specialist at Hephzibah Children’s Association in Oak Park, IL. “It’s mostly because situations like the Baby Richard case scared so many people out of trusting Illinois law and the way the process is done to free a child for adoption.”
Five years ago, Oak Parkers Michael Tatelbame, 42, and Douglas Cowart, 44, were ready to start a family and decided to adopt a youngster from the Ukraine. After doing extensive internet research and hiring an agency to help them navigate the piles of paperwork, the prospective fathers began a seemingly endless wait. Finally, on Christmas night, 2004, Tatelbame and Cowart received a letter from the Ukraine written in Russian. Through an interpreter, they learned that their paperwork had been accepted. The appointment was on October 3, 2005, 10 months from then.
Since they were not a traditional couple, and prohibited from adopting a child from the Ukraine together, Tatelbame went alone with a female friend who had adopted a child from China. Upon arrival, they met with the National Adoption Center in Kiev, where Tatelbame had 30 minutes to sift through pictures, biographies and minor medical histories for each prospective child. The adoption books, he recalls, alternated between several other adoptive families with the same appointment time.
“My Ukrainian facilitator was pretty frustrated because they were only showing me very old children, or allegedly sick children,” says Tatelbame, the Human Resource Director at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “When we got to Matthew’s picture, she highly encouraged me to go see him. He was younger, and had just become available.”
The next day they drove 12 hours to meet Matthew, hoping he was the one, or the international adoption process would reboot. Fortunately, they bonded, and the new father and son spent about two weeks finalizing details through the U.S. Embassy. Seven-year-old Matthew Vladimir Tatelbame met his second Dad, Douglas, at home on October 21, 2005.
“Here’s an orphan who had been pulled from his native country and is now living with two dads, a different language, a dog-they don’t have pets there-eating different food, and going to a school with no friends. It was a huge adjustment,” says Tatelbame. “The first three months were tough, but by that Christmas break, two months later, Matthew seemed to realize that living with us was permanent and we weren’t going to take him back.”
Looking to adopt
Unlike Tatelbame and Cowart, Laura Petrie, 39, and Shelley Petrie, 43, of River Forest started their family through Hephzibah Children’s Association. Because they didn’t care about the sex, race or age of their child, foster care moved to the top of their list. Before that, the couple had spent three years undergoing the phases of in vitro fertilization, which was expensive and emotionally draining, Laura Petrie says.
“We were drawn to Hephzibah because they are local, and they are small, which means that they know you by name, and welcome gay and lesbian foster parents without issue, says Petrie, a part-time teacher at Triton College. “There really are some troubled kids, and many of them come with a lot of baggage with various issues related to their history, but they are wonderful kids and we have fallen in love with every one of them.”
After completing 33 hours of requisite DCFS training, the Petries became foster Moms with the option to adopt in 2005, when their son, then 2 years old, was dropped off. Normally, women who become pregnant, Petrie continues, have nine months to prepare for the child. In foster care, when a child becomes available, it’s immediate.
“We didn’t know what he liked to eat, if he was still on a bottle, and his sleeping patterns, but we learned fast,” Petrie says. “Initially, he didn’t talk or communicate well, so we got a speech therapist, and he didn’t like us, and wanted to go back. But we loved him and worked with him. Now he is a part of our family and we can’t imagine life without him.”
Even though the strong urge to parent is universal, gays and lesbians usually have to work harder to become foster or adoptive parents, adds Williams. Many of them find it helpful to connect with groups like Rainbow Families, which has an active chapter in Oak Park. It is one of the largest regional lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parent organizations in the country, and there are other gay and lesbian internet groups for networking and support.
This year Cowart, an accountant, has gone part-time to co-parent Matthew. He says that even though their son has two Dads, they consider themselves to be just another family, not a gay family, and their positive experiences are probably related to living in Oak Park.
“Being Matthew’s family is very rewarding,” says Tatelbame. “Douglas and I feel like we are able to show the world that gay men aren’t so stereotypical. We too have good jobs, nice houses and stable relationships. Matthew came here from the Ukraine knowing nothing and nobody, and now he is like Mr. Popular. We know that that didn’t just happen. He is an amazing kid, and we are very proud of that.”
-Deb Quantock Mccarey