From rationing sugary snacks to lying on the floor with the kids playing with Legos, the couple featured in today’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family™” series has found that adopting through foster care was exactly the right fit for their family.
Most foster-adoptive parents have to wait for the placement of a child in their home. For Dallas resident Duke Nelson and his husband, Steve Nelson, it was a completely different story.
“We received our foster care license on a Friday at noon and at 3 p.m. we were told we were selected for an emergency placement,” recalled Duke. “The kids were at our house at 5 p.m.!”
Both dads are 42 years old. Duke works in the human resources department of a technology company and Steve serves as district manager for an apparel retailer. The day the Nelsons received the momentous call from the Child Protective Services Division (CPS) of the Texas Department of Children and Family Service, Steve was actually out-of-town and flying back that day.
“Going from zero kids to three under three years old was an unbelievable experience! Willow was six weeks old at the time,” said Duke. “At the end of that first night, I wasn’t sure what had just happened!”
While they had prepared for one child, the learning curve and the immediacy of the need for that information was steep.
“We didn’t have the nine or so months of education and preparation couples get when they become pregnant,” said Duke. “When you foster, you take classes on how to keep kids out of basic harm over the course of a few weeks but there is no diaper-changing training, no discussion about the best type of formula, and no decision trees presented for determining when a cough is just a cough versus when a trip to the ER is required. We relied heavily on family and Google in those early months.”
Sean, Luc and Willow, now ages six, four and three, respectively, were fully embraced by Duke and Steve’s extended families. Both men are now the legal parents of the children, but it was not an easy feat.
When the children were placed with the Nelsons, Steve and Duke both knew from the beginning that the children could be removed at any time to be reunified with a family member. Dallas County Children’s Protective Services had made this clear to the couple, but as the calendar reached six months, then nine months with no definitive outcome in the near future, it took an emotional toll on them.
“At the nine-month mark, when CPS wanted to re-evaluate all of the birth family members that they had already vetted and passed over, they made it clear to us they were making plans to split up the children. At that point we hired a lawyer,” said Duke.
The Nelsons became some of first foster parents in Dallas County to have the court consider their opinions regarding the future foster children placed in their care for less than a year. Prior to that, the foster parents’ view was only considered if the children had lived with the foster parents for more than a year.
When parental rights were terminated, Duke petitioned for adoption as a single parent because joint adoption by same-sex couples was not allowed at the time. Nine months later, he became their legal father. Nearly 12 months later, after the men married and Steve changed his last name, Steve petitioned for and obtained a second-parent adoption. The updated birth certificates, however, list only Duke as their father.
When the Nelsons decided they want to become parents, they explored all of their options, including surrogacy and private, international and foster adoption. Their hearts began to lead them more toward foster adoption, especially once they visited the Texas Adoption Resource Exchange (TARE) website.
“The clincher was when Steve and I were looking at the TARE website, sharing bios for all of the children and sibling groups,” Duke explained. “There were so many kids that needed a home that it was almost overwhelming. So many lives that had little or no support. At that point, we decided nothing else made sense for us. We wanted kids from the foster care system.”
When they attended the orientation and classes, Duke and Steve were concerned about how they would be received as an LGBT-headed family.
“As it turns out, we were more worried about it than our case worker, but it all depends on the case worker you’re assigned,” said Duke.
The Nelsons were surprised by what they discovered.
“We thought that we would be judged for being gay -- and sometimes we were -- but by the general public, not by CPS,” said Duke.
Eventually, however, they were less bothered by critical gazes than they expected.
“This may sound like a silly thing to call a challenge, but it can be,” said Duke. “When we are out, strangers approach us and ask very detailed and personal questions, then they go on to thank us. While we are so appreciative of their kind words, it can be embarrassing and we don’t always know how to respond. We stick out -- we get it. We understand that we don’t look like everyone else. But we really are just like every other family. We have to make dinner, go to school and pay our cable bill. Usually I’m happy to help educate people, but when you have two kids under five throwing tantrums and a six-year-old sneaking every sugary snack known to man into the grocery cart, it may not be a great time for a lesson or indulging people’s curiosity.”
Duke and Steve have been together for 24 years and married less than a year ago when they eloped to Napa Valley, California. It was their first weekend ever away from the kids, but even though they missed them terribly, getting legally married was the right choice for their family.
“We wanted to offer the kids and each other some legal protection in case something was to happen to one of us,” said Duke. “The wedding in Napa was wonderful and completely romantic, but the entire weekend we kept thinking about the kids. Our hope is that marriage will be legal in Texas in time for our 25th anniversary together. That way we can celebrate by having our friends and family with us.”
What’s the best thing about being a parent?
“It’s hard to pick one thing,” said Duke. “There are moments every day that are just perfect. All of the little things that we thought we wouldn’t be able to experience because we didn’t marry women. The kids sneaking into our room to wake us up before the sun comes up. Lying on the floor playing with Legos. Walking to school together in the morning. I guess the best thing is how we’ve changed. What we see as being important, special, or good has shifted and deepened through becoming parents.”
Corinne Lightweaver is the Communications Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns and events to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,500 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US.