Encouraging More Same-Sex Parents to Adopt
With L.A. County home to the most foster kids in the country, Five Acres has joined a campaign to encourage the LGBT community to become parents.
By Kathleen Kelleher 08/01/2014
The cellphone call came as Daniel Nelms was traveling down the 405 Freeway. He pulled over to talk. He was asked a question and given 10 minutes to call back with a yes or no. His answer would change his life instantly and dramatically.
“The question was, ‘Would I commit to being these two boys’ parent, their permanent, forever parent?’” says Nelms, who had completed Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services’ (DCFS) adoption/foster parent classes to prepare for fatherhood. “It was definitely ‘Yes.’”
The brothers, ages 1 and 3, had spent nine months in a foster home. Nelms, single at the time, raced to Target to buy a crib and all the things one might need to care for two toddlers. He met the boys for a few hours of get-to-know-you play on a Monday and took them home — forever — the next day.
“It was intense and traumatizing for us, but it was what it was,” says Nelms, who officially adopted Rocco, now 6, and Chip, 8, in 2010. Six months later, Nelms met Julian, now his husband, and the four have been a happy family since. “I think being a parent is magical,” says Nelms, who lives with his family in Eagle Rock. “If someone wants to be a parent in this country — gay, straight, black or white — you can become a parent…a family. For me, it was never about having my own children; how we got created as a family is not important, but it certainly is real.”
As real as the pressing need for people like the Nelmses to adopt. There are 20,000 children languishing in foster care in L.A. County, making it the county with the most foster children of any in the country — equal to the total number of foster children in the State of New York, according to Chanel Boutakidis, CEO of Five Acres, an Altadena-based nonprofit child welfare organization that promotes safety, well-being and permanence for children up to 21. The pressing need to find loving, stable, healthy permanent homes for so many foster children inspired Five Acres to partner in an outreach campaign with RaiseAChild.US, a nonprofit organization that educates and encourages the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and straight, single women to build nontraditional families through fostering and adopting.
The groups’ multiplatform LGBT outreach campaign launches in November (National Adoption Awareness Month) with streetlight banners, outdoor transit advertising billboards, print ads, PSAs, videos and celebrity outreach. The push will include Fives Acres’ own “20,000 Children Project,” which will be kicked off by the unveiling of a public art sculpture (by an artist yet to be determined) of a four-foot-tall boy, dubbed Boy 5A. The footloose Boy 5A is to be “fostered” at seven different locations such as corporate partners’ lobbies, front lawns and main office buildings. At the end of his seven-week trek, Five Acres hopes that Boy 5A will be “adopted” by one of Five Acres’ corporate sponsors or partners; his permanent placement will cap the group’s “permanency campaign.” The seven weeks and seven homes represent the average number of homes a foster child cycles through in the foster-care system.
“There are thousands of children in the foster-care system right here in our own community,” says Boutakidis. “We need safe, loving and permanent families to make an impact on the lives of these children regardless of sexual orientation, marital status, gender, age or income.”
The DCFS has been actively recruiting in the LGBT community since 2007. In 2009, L.A. County was the country’s first to receive the “All Children/All Families Seal” from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which promotes LGBT equality. To earn the seal, DCFS had to make sure its mission statement, website and forms were not just LGBT-friendly but actually welcoming, according to Sari Grant, DCFS recruitment administrator. “We are proud that every one of our division staff received training on [being] LGBT culturally competent,” the agency says in a statement.
Rich Valenza, founder and CEO of RaiseAChild.US, says that when he hit 40, he knew he wanted to build a family. Within six years, he’d adopted a boy and a girl and found fatherhood so wonderful that he established Hollywood-based RaiseAChild.US in 2011 with another adoptive gay dad, John Ireland.
“Through the years, we have figured out models for campaigning and promotion
to reach the LGBT community,” says Valenza, who co-parents with his partner, Jared Gee. Besides outreach, education and promotion, there is “a parent advocate program,” which helps match aspiring parents with the agency whose adoption/foster classes are most convenient. Foster care and adoption can be a confusing and complicated process, so the parent advocate continues to counsel the potential adoptive parent through the whole experience. “In this case, it is someone who has been through the process seven times,” Valenza says of parent advocate Jason Cook, who adopted seven children from DCFS with his husband, Michael Troynel. The youngest is 8 and the oldest is 23. The couple adopted two sets of siblings — five boys, and then later, two baby girls. In order to be closer to Jason’s father, who was not doing well, the family moved to Port Lucie, Florida.
“Yes, we have seven adopted children,” says Cook, a special ed teacher by training. “When we adopted them they were ages 11, 9, 5, 3, 2 and two newborns. Our oldest is now in the army and our second oldest is a Marine. We have been very busy, but it has been worth it seeing them all grow and mature.”
It is worth noting that while there are more than 100,000 unplaced foster children in the U.S., only 23 states and the District of Columbia allowed same-sex couple adoption when this issue went to press. Second-parent adoption (which allows a second parent to adopt without the first parent losing parental rights) is prohibited in five states (Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin), according the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). This despite the estimated 2 million gay and lesbian couples who are interested in adopting, according to the HRC.
Bolstering the assertion that gay and lesbian couples make fine parents is a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. The UCLA study compared L.A. County children who were adopted out of foster care by gay men or lesbians with those placed with heterosexual couples. Researchers followed all 82 children, 22 of whom were adopted by gay or lesbian couples at the average age of 4. Researchers evaluated all the children after two months, one year and two years. “All children benefited from adoption and on average made significant gains in cognitive development” — that is, their IQ scores increased by an average of 10 points — and maintained stable behavior. The study found that kids who had been adopted by gay or lesbian parents had more risk factors and were more likely to be of a different ethnicity than their parents. But after two years, these children were as well adjusted as children adopted by heterosexual parents.
And a University of Melbourne study of children with same-sex parents released last month found that they are actually happier and healthier than kids raised by heterosexual parents, scoring six percent higher on health and wellness measures. The Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families looked at 500 children of 315 same-sex parents, making this the largest study of its kind to date.
But the Nelms and Cook/Troynel families do not need studies to confirm what they know to be true: What defines family is not biology, sexual orientation or ossified ideas of what someone should look like. Family is defined by love.
“It could not be better or more positive for everybody,” says Daniel Nelms. Chip Nelms is absorbed by his iPad and soccer, while Rocco is more academically inclined. Their dads support them for who they are as individuals, whether athletic or studious. “They open everyone’s hearts who come into contact with them,” Nelms adds. “Our experience, our parents’ experience and my siblings’ experience [with them] has been positive and opening. They are gifts.”