The voices of North Carolina’s gay & lesbian adoptive parents

Editors' Note: This post was written by Mark Maxwell, who this year earned a Ph.D Public Policy & Administration from Walden University. The article is an excerpt from Maxwell's dissertation, "Second-Parent Adoption: North Carolina Same-Sex Couples and Foster Care Adoptions." Mark and his husband Timothy Young-Maxwell were married in 2013 in Washington D.C. after over two decades as a couple, and they have spoken out extensively with the Campaign for Southern Equality and Freedom to Marry about marriage and raising four sons from the North Carolina foster care system (below). Read more about Mark and Tim here. 

In 2010 I made the decision to research the lived the experiences of gay and lesbian adoptive parents living in a southeastern U.S. state. I assumed I would find couples living a “picket fence lifestyle” that included higher incomes, education and privilege. At the end of my four year journey that included countless hours of reading, writing, and revising, I found families existing in a state where the law discriminates against same-sex parents and adversely affects them financially and socially, because some children adopted from foster care by the families have medical or developmental special needs.

The purpose of my study was to explore the lived experiences of gay and lesbian adoptive parents who both wish to be legal parents of foster children they adopt in North Carolina. Four male and 4 female couples, who took part in the study for the study, were asked 16 open-ended questions. Data were digitally recorded, transcribed, coded, and subjected to thematic analysis. The study found that same-sex parents faced discrimination, as well as legal and social challenges which created financial hardships.

"Angel and Cara live rurally outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They are moms to five children, two adopted from foster care. Cara is a legal stranger to two of her children."

Angel and Cara live rurally outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. They are moms to five children, two adopted from foster care. Cara is a legal stranger to two of her children. Angel works outside of the home to support the family, and Cara stays at home, because their two boys adopted from North Carolina’s foster care system have developmental challenges that require extra time, and money.

Angel and Cara stated that at the end of the day, they like most parents “sit at the table and talk about our bills after the kids have gone to bed and try to figure out how we are going to meet our needs.” Cara said:

It would be so nice if …even thinking about the adoption assistance piece that any child adopted from foster care with special needs should be entitled to receive that assistance until they turn 18. While nobody is making any money on that…it certainly helps raise these children. If a heterosexual married couple adopts children from foster care who are entitled to that adoption assistance…if one of those partners dies the children don’t lose those benefits. If Angel dies …the children lose their benefits. That just doesn’t make any sense, because those are supposed to be benefits that the children are entitled too.

Further, the study described the trail-blazing decisions made by some of the parents to create their families and protect their children, while respecting their extended families and southern culture.

Jaxon and David worked to build a life and family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Foster care brought several children into their lives, and they eventually adopted two boys. One of the boys was born in Kansas and the other in North Carolina. At the time of adoption, David was the legal parent and Jaxon was a legal stranger. They left North Carolina for Des Moines, Iowa where they legally married. The men asked the State of Iowa to petition North Carolina and Kansas to change the children’s birth certificates to indicate that they were the legal birth parents. The Kansas birth certificate was changed, and it listed the men as “parent one and parent two.” North Carolina agreed to list both men on the birth certificate, but they are listed as “mother and father.” Today the family lives in Chicago, Illinois where David works as a physician. David explained:

The day to day taking the kids to the doctor or taking the kid to school…I feel like we have been fairly lucky in those regards. We have never had any push back. I think…(Chicago) was kind of accustomed to those things. They are a little more progressive. I never had issues there at all. The first time I took Quincy to the doctor here (Chicago)…all the paperwork is mother. I explained that there are two fathers and they still kept referring to …“Where’s the mother? Who is the mother?” That is one insulting, two unprofessional and three my child is hearing them say this. I don’t want him to be upset or bothered or to have to deal with it.

William and Bryson adopted their oldest son after he was placed in the high risk adoption unit in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services. His story became big news, because of the low rate of children adopted from the unit after over a decade of existence. He was in and out of homes and by the time they became his forever parents, he had spent time with twenty-nine different families. William said his son who is now 19 was illiterate when he entered their home at age fourteen. Today they are dads to two boys adopted from foster care in North Carolina.

William and Bryson’s family would be considered affluent, but they realize that they are an exception. They have access to good attorneys and financial planners. Angel and Cara, like many families, live pay check to pay check. William and Bryson are keenly aware of the social and developmental challenges that their children face. They continue to foster children because they care, but they worry because Bryson is a legal stranger to both of their adopted sons. William said:

I worry that my kids are not going to be as strong as I have been. I also worry that if anything happens to us….what might happen to our children by virtue of some quirk in the law that I don’t completely understand in the comfort of health and wellness. I do worry about the impact that it will have on our kids. I don’t for one minute worry about us. We never asked the state of North Carolina for permission to share our lives together. We don’t need their permission and they can’t take anything away from us.

"I also worry that if anything happens to us….what might happen to our children by virtue of some quirk in the law that I don’t completely understand in the comfort of health and wellness."

Gays and lesbians can effectively parent their children. The couples were accustomed, as gay men and women, to the challenges of maneuvering in their private and public lives, but their fears and concerns were heightened by the vulnerability that some felt their families were exposed to when they attempted to create lives that included children, some of whom had special needs. Words such as isolation or a lack of interaction were used by some of the couples to describe their experiences. William and Bronce used the term island of misfit toys to describe their family’s role within their community. Some of the respondents’ families could not comprehend why they would choose to do the work of parenting children with physical or developmental challenges.

Meeting the couples was life changing for me. Policy makers and social workers must work together to level the playing field for gay and lesbian parents with children adopted from North Carolina’s foster care system. The literature indicates that the outcomes for children of same-sex parents were equal to outcomes for children of heterosexual parents, although LGBT families are forced to take extra steps to protect their children legally. Couples should not be forced to leave communities and their support systems, but empirical literature shows that heterosexism and homophobia leave some LGBT individuals feeling that being a mother and father is not an option for them. Based on comments from the informants, LGBT individuals should open themselves to the option of parenting, especially of children in foster care.

Dr. Maxwell’s study will be published in the Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, Volume 37, Number Fall 2014. Second Parent Adoption: Same-Sex and the Best Interest of the Child.