According to the U.S. Department of Social Services, as of September 2011 there were 400,540 children in foster care. The Children's Defense Fund estimated 17,080 children in Illinois. With Illinois now part of 16 states with marriage equality, organizations such as Raise a Child hope that LGBTQ couples will welcome one of those children into their family.
On Nov. 18, Raise a Childa nonprofit based in Hollywood, Calif.came to the Center on Halsted to present a panel discussion and resource fair for prospective LGBT parents. The discussion was part of National Adoption Month. Richard Valenza, the Founder and Executive Director of Raise a Child said he hoped people would consider building families through fostering and adoption."I think that LGBTQ people are geared to be the perfect parents for these kids," he said."Because of what we have gone through ourselves, like rejection from some of our family members."
The panel discussion opened with comedian Alec Mapa ( Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives ) talking frankly to the audience about the experience he and his husband, Jamison Hebert, had regarding the fostering and adoption of 5-year-old Zion in 2009."My husband and I said that if we don't go out there and try to find him, as soon as we can, it will be the biggest regret of our lives."Mapa remembered.
Zion had been in foster care in Compton for three and a half years. When Mapa and Hebert first met him, the young baby was sitting between two garbage bagsone containing his toys and the other his clothes. They adopted him nine months later. "After three years of living with two gay men, my son now sounds like he's been living with two gay men."Mapa said. "On flights, he asks for a Pellegrino."
Off-stage, Mapa said that he didn't find anything dramatically different about adopting a child as an LGBT couple. "I'm just raising a kid like everyone else," he said. "I'd had 45 years of being self-centered. I was sick of me." He recalled the first day they met as a terrifying experience. "He looked like a little old man. He just broke my heart," he said. "The first three weeks was like a non-stop freak out. There was a big adjustment thing that was scary for everybody. As soon as he knew he was safe and respected and that he wasn't going to be moved, he was a completely different kid. Now there's a light in his eyes."
Mapa said that, today, he cannot imagine his life without his son. "I understand adoption is not for everybody," he told the audience."But everybody should explore the option."
The panel included Glen Barker, his husband Tony Zumpano and their 9-year-old girl, Kayla, whom they adopted as a three-and-a-half-month old baby. Off stage, Kayla explained that having two dads was no different to her than having a mom and a dad. "I like it a lot," she said with a shy smile, "and kids at school think it's really cool." Zumpano and Barker both started their journey as foster parents. "I was really comfortable with having children in our home of all ages and backgrounds and knowing that I was doing my part." Barker said.
"It completely changes your life." Zumpano added after the discussion. Barker also offered encouragement to anyone considering adoption. "Follow your heart and go for it," he said. "Don't let circumstances stand in your way."
Twenty-two-year-old James McIntyre moved the audience with his own story. McIntyre said he spent 17 years as an abused and neglected child in the Department of Children and Family Services. A failed adoption put him back in the system at 13. He had little chance of being permanently adopted at that age and he went from placement to placement, never spending the holidays twice with the same family. Today, he is a motivational speaker and youth advocate who hopes to encourage people to adopt older children. "A lot of those kids are not going to be in the same placement this Thanksgiving," he said. "It's just another day."
Rosemary Mulryan, an attorney and frequent lecturer on adoption and legal issues facing LGBTQ families, mentioned some of the state support available for adoptive parents. Costs of adopting through the child welfare system are absorbed by the DCFS. Medical cards are available as well as continued support of the child's basic needs like food and clothing through monthly adoption subsidies. "Courts are amenable and family friendly," Mulryan said. "Once the child is ready, adoptions can be completed in five weeks."
Family law attorney Betsy Wirth advised LGBTQ couples to keep themselves updated with current laws and not to get discouraged. "Don't be afraid to foster and adopt," she said. "The law is quickly changing and there are lots of opportunities for folks to create families."
Speaking off-stage, McIntyre is determined to make that a reality nationwide. "The doors are open now," he said. "The first thing I would like to accomplish, at the minimum, is getting adoption with same-sex couples legal in all the states."