Adoption Barriers Fall, and Families Grow

Eric and Fernando Manteiga Sawicki say they knew for a long time that they wanted to have children. So when they decided three years ago to begin building their family, they had no doubts about how they would proceed.

"We decided we weren't going to start a family with a lie," Eric Sawicki said. "We knew there was going to be baggage with us for the rest of our lives, but what were we going to do with those bags? We could either pack them, or drag them with us and let them bring us down."

Eric and Fernando, of Cumberland, are among a growing number of gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island who have chosen to openly navigate an adoption system that was at one time uncertain at best, hostile at worst. The Sawickis (Fernando Manteiga legally took Eric's last name) have adopted two boys through the state Department of Children, Youth and Families: Michael, 10, who was adopted in April 2001, and Keith, 5, whose adoption became final this past June.

Gays and lesbians have been adopting children for years in Rhode Island, but not always openly. For those who adopt as single parents, the issue of sexual orientation might never emerge. Those who adopt overseas must conceal their sexual orientation, since most foreign countries will not knowingly place a child with a gay or lesbian parent.

It wasn't until June 1993, when a lesbian couple from Providence successfully petitioned jointly for adoption, that gays and lesbians in Rhode Island began to make inroads into participating in the adoption process on a par with heterosexual couples, said Charles Greenwood, a Providence lawyer who represented the couple in that case. That adoption and subsequent ones by gay and lesbian couples were not the product of any sweeping legal changes, he said, but rather of changing social attitudes.

"[Things] haven't involved statutorily, because nothing [in the statutes] has changed. They haven't evolved judicially, because we don't have any Supreme Court decisions on it. But in practice, we are light years .way from where we were in the 1980s," says Greenwood, who estimates that he has handled 60 or 70 lesbian and gay adoptions in his 31 years of practicing law. (The couple in the 1993 case were unavailable for an interview.)

Greenwood credited the success of hat first joint adoption in large part to Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. and Donna Pariseau, the state social worker who did the requisite home investigation. "Both of these people took, from my perspective, a really bold step in sanctioning this," Greenwood said.

"They filed a petition for adoption. I researched the law. I saw no impediments," Judge Jeremiah said. "I thought they had the right to have it done."

Jeremiah recalls including the relevant law in the case — something he doesn't usually do in an adoption — in case anyone challenged the adoption. No one did, and Jeremiah said he has received only praise over the years for his granting of adoptions to gay and lesbian parents.

Pariseau, who now licenses adoption agencies and foster homes in Rhode Island for the DCYF, said she didn't have a sense that she was doing anything extraordinary when she did the couple's "adoption placement investigation," a scaled-back home study done when a child has already been placed in a home in a private adoption.

"I just took each case as it came," she said. "I didn't have any preconceived notions — "maybe that was what was so ground-breaking."

Since then, individual challenges to longstanding practices, or in some cases the absence of practices, have chipped away at the system's resistance to non-traditional family structures. Michelle Duso said that when she and her partner, Julie Brown, began trying to adopt through the DCYF in 1996, they insisted that they be allowed to go through the home-study process as a couple. The social worker agreed, and helped accommodate them by creating an "alternative family" home-study class, which consisted of two lesbian couples, a couple of single lesbians, and a couple of single heterosexuals, said Duso, 33, the executive director of Youth Pride, Inc.

Duso and Brown, 36, a materials engineer with Thielsch Engineering in Cranston, were eventually matched with a 10-month-old boy whose placement with a heterosexual couple proved short-lived, and Justice, now 5, moved into Duso and Brown's home in September of 1997. But when Duso and Brown were ready to legally adopt Justice six months later, Justice's caseworker said she was told that she could not support a joint petition for adoption; it could be contested, Duso said. Instead, Duso was forced to adopt Justice in March of 1998 as a single parent, and then Brown adopted him in May of that year.

"There's still a lot of homophobia in the system," says Duso. "And that's really hard to take when you feel raw because you want to be parents so badly."

Duso and Brown now have three boys in their Cranston home. Besides Justice, Dylan, 2, was legally adopted this past March and his birth brother, Corey, 8 months old, was placed with the family in July. Duso and Brown, who have been together for 14 years, were able to jointly adopt Dylan, and that adoption went smoothly, Dus'o said.

Because most children in state care have special needs as a result of abuse or neglect, the adoptive parents are eligible for subsidies to defray the cost of any special services or medical care. But when Alison Dwyer and Celeste Cave-don, of Narragansett, were ready to jointly adopt their daughter, Michelle, now 10, they were told that the DCYF would allow only one of them to be named on the subsidy, since they weren't married. That would have meant that if the parent named on the subsidy died, the subsidy died along with her, leaving the other one solely responsible for the child's educational or medical bills.

"Why shouldn't we get the benefits that heterosexuals get?" says Cavedon, 48, who works at a group home.

The couple contacted Wakefield lawyer Lise Iwon, who said she worked with Steven Brown, head of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, to prepare a federal lawsuit against the DCYF. Faced with the threat of litigation, the department changed its policy on subsidies in same-sex adoptions, Iwon said. Michelle was adopted in October 2000, with both Dwyer and Cavedon named on the subsidy.

Iwon, who estimates that she has handled close to 100 lesbian and gay adoptions in her 20 years of practicing law, said she also helped persuade the state Division of Vital Records to design a birth certificate for gay and lesbian parents.

"They used to be really horrible and ugly because it would say 'mother,' and they'd x-out 'father' — big, black, type-written letters — and they would type 'mother,' and it would just look awful," she said. Now, she said, the birth certificates read "parent" and "parent."

"How cool is that?" Iwon said, noting that there are many states that don't recognize gay and lesbian adoptions.

Although the state has been offering adoption-preparation classes for nontraditional families for about six years, Phyllis Choquette, clinical training specialist at the DCYF, said she has no way of knowing how many gay and lesbian parents have gone through them. Participants are free to divulge their sexual orientation, she said, but they are not specifically asked about it. "We're always looking for families of all kinds," Choquette said. "Everyone is welcome."

Once they've successfully adopted, gay and lesbian parents say they then find themselves in the role of educators as they interact with tradition-bound schools and other institutions that are unaccustomed to two-mother or two-father families.

"We were the first gay family [in Cumberland], and we didn't care," said Eric Sawicki, 37, a database manager for the Visiting Nurse Association of Rhode Island. He said he changes such things as school-registration forms, crossing out "mother" and writing "father 1" and "father 2."
Both men, who have been in a committed relationship for five years, are active in the PTA and say that other families have been very accepting of them. "They realize we're just like them," said Fernando Sawicki, 34, a medical re-searcher at Roger Williams Medical Center.

Adoption has also meant personal growth for both the adoptive parents and their families. All three couples said that when they adopted children, their own parents became more accepting of their relationships with their partners, realizing that they were every bit as committed as any married heterosexual couple.

Dwyer, 38, a nurse/ health manager for Head Start programs in Kent County, said that being a parent has made her much more open about her sexual orientation.

"It pushes you out further than you've ever been, because you're advocating on behalf of your child," she said.

"So that superseded any of my homophobia or my fear."

Most of the parents say they do not worry about their children being teased by their peers as a result of their family structure — or at least not any more so than any other child might be teased for
any number of reasons. Duso said that because most lesbian and gay parents have already had to cope with homophobia, they can help their children avoid such hardships.

"We're not the ones that the problem resides in, and we can give that to our children," she said. If the children are the least bit self-conscious about being part of a non-traditional family, they do not readily show it. In the Sawicki household, Michael and Keith refer to Eric as Dad and Fernando as Pai, the Portuguese word for dad. In the Duso/Brown household, Julie is Mom and Michelle is Momma. And in the Dwyer/Cavedon home, Michelle decided to refer to Alison as Momma and Celeste as Mommy. "So that I wouldn't be Momma Celeste, like the pizza," Cavedon said, as Michelle giggled.

Dwyer said that Michelle was specifically asked by her social worker if she'd like to, have two mothers, and she said yes.

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out in support of adoptions by gay and lesbian parents, asserting in the February issue of its journal, Pediatrics, that children raised by gay and lesbian parents "have, the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment and development as children whose parents are heterosexual." That endorsement set off a predictable wave of criticism from conservative groups.

Gay and lesbian parents bristle at any suggestion that their sexual orientation diminishes their suitability as parents, pointing out that they are offering love and stability to children who have been through emotional and physical turmoil and who would otherwise be residing temporarily in foster homes or shelters.

"We ask ourselves, where did these children come from?" said Fernando Sawicki. "Why are there so many kids in the DCYF system? They didn't come from gay couples."

Fernando Sawicki said he was shocked when he learned about some of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse the children in state care had suffered. "Because I didn't live it, I never thought people could be that cruel," he said.

Dwyer said that because gays and lesbians who adopt through the state are typically getting children who are older and "who have been through the wringer," their commitment to parenting is dear. "By Virtue of that, our kids: are kids that need intensive parenting and intensive support systems, and many of us have taken leaves of absence from our jobs to do the job better, completely changed our lifestyles in order to support our kids and to provide the level of care that they need," she said.

While Florida expressly prohibits gays and lesbians from adopting and quite a few other states are reluctant to grant adoptions, Rhode Island has been "fairly progressive" and something of a leader in gay and lesbian adoptions, said Darlene Allen, the executive director of Adoption Rhode Island, the agency that recruits adoptive families for the DCYF and helps match them with children in state care. Greenwood concurs, calling Rhode Island "a safe haven" for gays and lesbians wanting to adopt.

Allen said sexual orientation is not a determining factor in whether someone would make a good parent. "All kids need families, and many prospective parents, whether gay or single, make excellent parents," she said. "I'd much rather see a child in a loving, lifelong, committed family situation than staying in temporary care and having no one to love them." Despite the many changes children have brought to their lives, the parents say adoption has been well worth it.

"[Adoption] just changes your whole life so much that you really need to make sure that's what you really want to do, because it's a full life commitment in every aspect of your life," said Cavedon. But, she says, "The rewards can be plentiful."

The Sawickis say they have watched Michael grow from a frightened, withdrawn child when he was first placed in their home more than two years ago to a more sociable boy whose behavior is age-appropriate. Keith, who suffered shaken-baby syndrome as an infant, certainly showed no signs of shyness as he excitedly ushered his Options visitor into the family's home and promptly instructed her to take her shoes off. "People should know that there are such things as healthy gay families," says Eric Sawicki.

The parents say that while their homes may be more cluttered and their daily activities more structured, their lives have been enriched by the laughter and love of their children.

Adoption, says Duso, is "a beautiful way to expand a family."