Rick Whitaker says he’s always known how he would start a family. He remembers a boyhood drive past an orphanage with the man who was maybe not his father, an Air Force vet named Rodney, who preferred to go by the name Butch. Rick’s mother and Butch hadn’t yet separated, but Rick and Butch already had their differences. Rick has heard that Butch once said, upon receiving the distinction, that he could conceive of no greater honor than being selected for the Greater Cincinnati Softball Hall of Fame. Rick was less fond of sports, owing to his memory of being spanked by Butch when he failed to catch pitches. The day they drove past the orphanage, Butch pointed to it and explained that in that building lived children without families, and he warned Rick that if he wasn’t a good boy, he’d end up there, too. To Rick it sounded like a fantasy.
By the time Rick was nine years old, his mother and Butch were divorced; by the time he was eighteen, he and Butch were no longer speaking to each other. Eventually his mother would reveal that Rick might, in fact, be the offspring of a man named Richard, with whom she’d had an affair. To Rick it didn’t matter whose son he was; as he matured, the memory of that boyhood drive past the orphanage remained inextricable from how he envisioned starting his own family. He would move from Ohio to New York City, work as an editorial assistant to Gordon Lish, get in trouble, get out of trouble, serve as editor of a philosophy journal. Well into adulthood, he would think back on that drive and how the threat in Butch’s voice seemed to somehow invest the orphanage with hope, as a place better than his own home. Having imagined the orphanage’s kindly nurses caring for children like him, he now saw himself as a caretaker. So, at thirty-four, Rick and his partner, Iannis, began inquiring into adopting a child.
By spring 2003, Rick and Iannis had completed thirty hours of the Model Approach to Partnership, an adoptive-parent training program offered through the New York Council on Adoptable Children (COAC). The next step was the home study, during which a social worker would visit Rick and Iannis’s Harlem apartment to assess whether they were fit to parent. The two of them needed to prove their competence in this regard, and it wasn’t work they could do alone. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to prove a couple can. The adoption process is designed to find permanent homes for children, but it’s also designed to weed out those who might, intentionally or otherwise, do children harm. The requirements place some faith in testimonials, which are delivered on behalf of the potential parents by friends via reference letters and by social workers trained to distinguish the healthy and capable from the incompetent, loony, and depraved, and altogether this small chorus projects if father will, after all the legwork and signatures, know best.
The study would also include an evaluation of the home: There must be ample space for the child; the fire alarms should work; the drape cords should be secured out of a child’s reach; poisons and household cleaners should be stored in cabinets with childproof locks. (By these standards, one might infer that the homes of many biological families are arcades of hazard.) Over the summer of 2003, Sheree Jackson, a “homefinding consultant” with COAC, visited Rick and Iannis’s apartment to assess them and their home. Jackson checked to make sure that the bathroom had both hot and cold water. She examined the kitchen appliances. And though the couple was advised to install an additional fire detector in the apartment due to its spaciousness, Jackson noted that the home was “furnished nicely with few but choice pieces of furniture.” She believed that the racial and social diversity of the neighborhood would ease a child’s transition into an adoptive home by providing a community in which heterogeneity and togetherness coexisted.
Jackson described Rick as “handsome,” “very friendly,” “eloquent in his speech,” and “intellectually charming.” She reported that “Mr. Whitaker’s domestic partner, best friend, and roommate,” Iannis, had “a warm personality, and strong feeling with regards to adopting a child.” Both men had passed the security clearance by successfully completing the State Central Register Clearance form. Both submitted full medical records indicating that they were healthy. Both showed adequate income to raise a child, and Rick’s job at Columbia University provided the additional benefit of tuition-free study at the school. Although he would be permitted to bring the child to work if necessary, a close friend named Toni, who had an eleven-year-old of her own, was listed as a child-care backup resource. It was mutual: Rick and Iannis had been designated legal guardians of Toni’s child should she die or become otherwise unable to parent.
When asked of his motivations for adopting, Rick said he hoped to show a child love and nurture—that is, what it meant to “belong.” He told Jackson that he was interested in adopting a child of any race or ethnicity, male or female. Though not religious, he’d celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or any other religious holiday if it would make his child happy. He would share his love of classical music, the outdoors, and film. Iannis agreed, adding that “without children in the home something [was] missing.” After interviewing three personal references, Jackson recommended that Rick be certified to adopt a child.
Rick had advanced past one of the most anxiety-ridden stages of the adoption process, yet he would spend another four years without being matched to a child by COAC. Part of the delay was a matter of choice: In 2005, Rick’s sister gave birth to a child, and he and Iannis focused some attention on assisting with child care. Eventually Rick and Iannis sought assistance from Lutheran Social Services of Metropolitan New York, a group that arranged adoptions. He and Iannis looked through the organization’s “blue books”—publications, now obsolete, that once served as catalogs of orphans. There, they saw a picture of a boy who seemed like a suitable match. Soon after that, Lutheran made an appointment with the Randolph Children’s Home, in Western New York, for the couple to meet a nine-year-old boy named Alan.*
Sitting in an office at the children’s home, Rick and Iannis vacillated between feeling thrilled and brittle with nervousness. They’d brought their boxer puppy, Tulip, to break the ice. After years of wanting and preparation, they still didn’t feel quite prepared. Eventually, a pudgy little boy, carrying baseball cards in one pocket and a plastic comb in the other, entered the room. The anxiety slipped away. Later, Rick would write in his journal that “[as] soon as he stepped inside, I loved him … The mutual desire for connection was very palpable. He wanted to like us, and we wanted to love him. It worked very nicely. He did like us, and we do love him, and it happened instantly, without a hitch.” He and Iannis spent the afternoon with Alan at Allegany State Park—playing with Tulip, eating ice cream, even playing a game of Yahtzee. It was almost as if his childhood fantasy of the orphanage had actualized.
A few days later, Rick and Iannis took Alan on a five-day trip. They visited an amusement park, and at one point Alan, terrified on a swinging pirate ship, screamed for them to stop the ride, but there was nothing they could do. Alan shouted, “I fucking hate you both!” Rick was unperturbed, and Alan recovered soon enough. That evening they had a picnic dinner at Presque Isle State Park, and back at the motel, Rick watched with pride as Alan played gently in the pool with smaller children. The days were a kind of sublime montage of Alan foraging for dead leaves to feed the campfire, fishing, and swimming in the lake. At one point, Rick had argued over payment with a man who rented them a boat, and he was touched when Alan later asked if he was okay. But Rick worried, too, about the boy’s anxiety, speculating that what he needed most was a routine and stability. Toward the end of the trip, with some time to himself, Rick watched a video Alan had made in the car as they drove. In the video, a Bach cello suite can be heard as the rest of the world pulls past the car windows in a frenzied tableau. “Watching it, alone, I cried,” Rick wrote, “not as much as I need to, but a few tears, which was a relief—they’ve been building up.”
Not long after the trip with Alan, Rick received a phone call from Chemung County informing him that they would not be moving forward with his application, based on information about him that had been discovered on the internet. During the application process, Rick had accurately reported that he worked at Columbia University, and that he was a writer. But he had not mentioned his book, Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, in which he detailed his rehabilitation from drug use and escort work years before. By the time he and Alan met, Rick had been clean for nine years, but the county did not see a redemption narrative. Nor were they swayed by his assertion that it was absurd that county officials had Googled him only after Alan had been allowed an overnight visit.
According to New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services’ (OCFS) Adoption Services Guide for Caseworkers, “An applicant who abused alcohol or drugs in the past should not automatically be excluded,” and, of course, a biological parent might have a past similar to Rick’s without his or her child being taken away. But Rick was not a biological parent, and his ability to adopt was contingent on the county social workers’ evaluation of his character.
So he provided an updated home-study report, sent additional recommendations. He wrote a letter to Governor Eliot Spitzer, asking for help. In a letter addressed to the commissioner of OCFS, he wrote, “It is obvious that this aborted process has been deeply traumatic and irreversibly damaging for Alan. Surely the adoption process should not work like this. It should not do further damage to already broken children. Alan at 9 cannot read; he hates living in the institution he is in, and he is clearly not thriving there. Iannis and I are deeply hurt and saddened by the outcome of this nightmarish process. We can only imagine the permanent repercussions for Alan.”
Chemung County Social Services refused to comment on Rick’s case for this article, explaining that it could not disclose information about a minor. Rick was, however, informed in a letter from the county that its decision was based on “the fact that you were less than forthcoming with past and current information in your home study and in your continued contacts with the agency.” In other words, the problem was not that Rick had used drugs or worked as an escort; rather, it was that they believed he had made calculated omissions. Rick disagreed. Responding in a letter to OCFS, he accused the county of discrimination and a shortsighted view of what constituted a “good person.”
Rick was able to see Alan once more after COAC had informed him of its decision. What he did not know was that it would be the last time they would see each other. He does not know what has become of Alan since. And while he was devastated by the experience, Rick refused to give up, and eventually would adopt, though it wouldn’t be with Iannis. Rick would adopt as a single man.
In a traditional pregnancy, there are nine months leading up to a probable birth, a logical and intelligible progression. The gestation process of an adoption, on the other hand, drags out, sometimes over years, seizing up around paperwork and money and meetings. There are periods in which there are no signs a child is coming. For some people, the process can feel as though parenthood both crawled toward their lives and sprang upon them, or that after a period of promise the child is suddenly snatched away. It is not uncommon for prospective parents to simply give up.
According to the most recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System data, there are more than 415,000 children in the foster-care system and more than 107,000 children waiting to be adopted in the United States, and of course there are far more worldwide. The goal of foster and adoption services is to place a child in a permanent home; and yet single men are often limited in or prohibited from adoption. In 2009, the year Rick Whitaker finalized his adoption, only 1,567 single men in the United States adopted children from foster care, as compared to 15,408 single women and 36,133 married couples.
Prospective parents take three main paths to adoption: They can adopt domestically through the public foster-care system, or they can adopt through a private agency, either domestically or internationally. Each route presents its own trials, some more evident than others.
In the case of domestic adoptions, in which the birth mother has not yet legally relinquished parental rights—when the fetus is still in utero but the biological mother has already made arrangements with an agency—the birth mother may exert conditions on the adoptive parents, which can be to the exclusion of single men and women. As Deborah Ives, adoption intake coordinator for the Gladney Center for Adoption, conceded in an August e-mail, “Unfortunately, single parents are not what our birthmothers are looking for in families for their child(ren).” For some birth mothers, the tendency to compare themselves to the prospective family is unavoidable. If I can’t raise a child on my own, some ask, how could he?
While it may be easy to deflate such logic, the attitude pervades the adoption industry, and is even reflected in some states’ policies. In Arizona, for example, when all other considerations are deemed equal, preference must be given to married couples over single people. Sometimes the resistance to single male parents may not even be articulated, though the attitude may inform the rejection of an adoption applicant.
Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families—and America, and president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, believes that even a well-meaning social worker will generally choose a single female applicant for a child over a commensurate single male. At the crux of this phenomenon, he thinks, is cultural conditioning: “Men aren’t the primary caregivers—that’s the stereotype. So if a man adopts, is he really going to care for the child?”
Steve Tuber, a professor of clinical psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, says that men aren’t inferior nurturers, physically or otherwise. It might be easier for women to learn how to nurture physically because it is more socially acceptable for women to do so, but neither men nor women are more naturally nurturing. Perhaps what’s closer to the truth is that single adoptive fathers are a parental rarity, and the social stigma around them displaying overt, touch-based affection is not an issue for mothers or more traditional fathers.
“I think in the back of everyone’s minds, no one expects women to sexually abuse children they adopt,” explains Richard Gelles, who helped write the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, and is dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. “But in the back of many minds would be, ‘Well why would a male adopt a child? And is there not some pedophilia lurking in the background?’”
Statistically, in the United States, mothers are charged with child abuse more frequently than fathers. Part of what drives this data, Gelles notes, is gender bias. Women are more often charged with neglect, for example, because women are more often expected to be caretakers—absentee fathers, for example, are not charged with neglect, though a woman who has been raising her child alone could be. Furthermore, the rate of child abuse in biological homes slightly exceeds the rate of abuse in adoptive homes. But what galvanizes suspicions against single adoptive fathers is that sexual-abuse convictions of men outnumber those of women. When faced with this moral calculus, people concerned with child welfare prefer to limit the perceived risk of sexual abuse rather than recognize the rights of men who wish to adopt. Gelles is not one of those people.
“What percentage of men have sex with children? It’s not a particularly large number,” Gelles says. “What gets everybody worried is the assumption that pedophilic males, a tiny population, are much more highly motivated to adopt than other men. But nobody knows. If you’re a pedophile, there are many options other than adoption. You could be a Boy Scout leader. You could be a Little League coach. You could be a daycare provider. None of those involve the cost and legal proceedings that you’d have to go through in order to adopt.”
Adoption social workers are tasked with gauging qualities that are extremely difficult to measure, such as New York State’s criteria for having the capacity to give and receive affection, to be flexible, and to respect and share the child’s past. Unlike assessing data such as parental income, this qualitative analysis is susceptible to preconceptions. Arguably, predicting an individual’s ability to show and receive affection is itself a preconception—if, perhaps, a necessary one. In some borderline cases, suspicions about gender may tip an applicant’s odds toward rejection.
Although some states have outlawed discrimination against adoptive parents on the basis of marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation, there are still no adequate protections against such discrimination on the federal level. In 2009, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced a bill to the House of Representatives called the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit any foster or adoption agency receiving federal financial assistance from practicing these forms of discrimination. The bill died in committee but has since been reintroduced three times, most recently in May 2015 by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as well as Representatives John Lewis (D-GA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). With Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate, the bill’s passage is unlikely. GovTrack.com, a website dedicated to reporting the progress of potential legislation, estimates that the bill has a 1 percent chance of progressing past committee and a zero percent chance of enactment.
As a result, some agencies offering international adoption—such as Holt International and the Gladney Center for Adoption—are not compelled to provide services to single men who wish to adopt. The laws of many countries outside the US, including China, India, Russia, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, and Ethiopia, restrict or do not allow single men to apply for children. Even countries that notionally allow single men to adopt, such as Hungary, may reserve preferential treatment for married, heterosexual couples. The US government cannot undermine the laws of these individual countries.
In August 2015, Holt International Vice President of Policy and External Affairs Susan Soonkeum Cox told me that “in international adoption, the countries are the ones who set the criteria for adoption. And actually few countries are open to single men adopting. There are some exceptions, but not many. We don’t have any countries that we’re working with that would accept applications from single men.” But Cox’s claim is contestable. The US Bureau of Consular Affairs states that Haiti, a country from which Holt facilitates adoptions, “permits adoption by single prospective adoptive parents.” The same is true of Vietnam, another Holt country, which, according to the Bureau, “permits intercountry adoption by both single persons and opposite-sex married couples.” Even Holt adoption counselor Emily Lund says that “most” of the countries the agency works with prohibit single-male adoption, not all. Furthermore, Holt Alumni and External Affairs Coordinator Meghan Nelson says that Vietnam and Haiti do allow single men to adopt children. When I asked Cox and Nelson whether they had told single men that the agency wouldn’t serve them due to country restrictions, they referred me to Thoa Bui, Holt’s senior executive of South and Southeast Asia Programs. In a November 2015 e-mail, Bui wrote that, “We normally explain to single men who want to adopt internationally that we cannot work with them because foreign Central Adoption Authorities do not accept single men to adopt from their countries.” She went on to elaborate that, “Many countries state to allow singles (not mention single men or women) to adopt. But in reality, they deny single men even though it is not specified in the laws … Reality of adoption is different than what is stated in the laws in many countries.”
This kind of ambiguity is one reason Brian Tessier, a Massachusetts-based lawyer, decided to establish a hotline—411-4-DAD —for single men who wish to adopt. He says that many men don’t even understand that they can adopt.
Tessier adopted two children as a single man in his late thirties. He says he empathized with women his age who were anxious about getting pregnant at this point in their lives. In his mind, the desire to parent is universal, and he likens the instinct to protect one’s children to breathing. He’s quick to tell prospective fathers that a single-income household doesn’t necessarily preclude adopting children, that adopting through the foster-care system is often free or relatively inexpensive. There are also government child-care subsidies available, and there may even be stipend money available for the period of time in which a child lives in a home before being legally adopted.
But Tessier is also blunt about the fact that the process isn’t easy, warning that the courts have demonstrated bias against single fathers as sole caregivers. Nor do the challenges end there. In the workplace, Tessier points out, it is often more acceptable for a female employee to leave work or interrupt a meeting in order to provide care for her child than for a male employee to do so. Tessier worries about the long-term psychological effects on men who want to become fathers but have been taught that they simply aren’t hardwired to adequately nurture, and he worries that this idea underpins too many rejections of single-male adoption applicants.
“Any guy,” he says, “that’s willing to have the state or someone do a home study and crawl up their proverbial butt, look into their finances, their health, everything you can possibly imagine—it’s the most invasive process in the world that makes you doubt everything that you are—that guy that’s going to go through all that by himself and stand there and say, ‘Yes, I want a baby’: You would rather have somebody else than this person who just jumped through every hoop? Please. That’s ridiculous.”
After his aborted appeal with COAC, Rick Whitaker turned to an agency he remembered being praised by an employee at Randolph Children’s Home called Family Focus Adoption Services. The agency is run by a longtime child-care worker named Jack Brennan, a burly man of immense cheer and energy whose full beard and thick white hair give him the aspect of a lumberjack. At their first meeting, Rick explained to Brennan the debacle with Chemung County and his book, and asked if there was any way to salvage the application for Alan. Brennan couldn’t alter Chemung County’s decision, but he also wasn’t worried about Rick’s history. Having worked in the adoption industry for decades, he knew that troubled pasts didn’t preordain troubled futures. He also knew that Rick’s life experiences might make him a parent who was willing to believe that a child who had been traumatized could still grow up to be a well-adjusted adult.
Brennan believed he had precisely the right son for Rick, a fourteen-year-old named David. When David was seven, he and his brothers had all been removed from their biological mother’s care after several reports of neglect, including an incident in which David had accidentally set fire to his bedroom closet. Since then, he’d been in and out of foster homes (he was relocated from one after setting another fire). By the time he met Rick, David was being housed in a program at the Elmcrest Children’s Center, in Syracuse, New York. Elmcrest houses many types of children, and has a special program for those with sexual-behavior issues. David was assigned to this program after having been assessed by the facility’s specialists. David said he’d been molested by a family member. He’d also allegedly been involved in another molestation while in foster care, though he denied it. “I knew I’d never get a family for David,” Brennan explained. “Nobody in middle suburban Long Island is going to take this boy. The only way I’m going to do this is to get people who have had extraordinary life experiences themselves.”
But David was much more than the sum of his traumas. He liked making other people happy, enough so that he even considered becoming a Jehovah’s Witness just to please his mother, a recent proselyte, years after he’d been removed from her custody. He was selfless enough that amid his own struggles he often thought about how he could use filial love to reroute his mother away from abusive men. When we met in August 2015, I asked David what he had hoped for in a family when he was fourteen. He struggled to articulate it, then admitted that he’d relied on the tropes of a kid’s show called Drake & Josh, a Nickelodeon program in which two one-parent families join together to become a family of four, and the differences between Drake and Josh complement each other, helping them self-actualize in ways that had been impossible in David’s own home. The show was his primary image of a desirable family; he didn’t know any healthy families at Elmcrest, and with the rapid moves between foster homes prior to his stay there, he’d never had the chance to make the kind of friends who might invite him over to spend time with their own parents. In the absence of real-life models of nonabusive homes, Drake & Josh became a radical dream, totally foreign to his own experience of a home in which his mother and siblings were beaten by an abusive alcoholic. Rick and Iannis could not have known this then. They could only agree to take a chance.
In April 2008, after several weeks of visits to Elmcrest, David moved in with Rick and Iannis, a step that initiated another year or so of “transition” steps. Under Family Focus procedures, there are six steps a child and family must complete before an adoption is legalized, a process that is informed by Brennan’s own experiences—not only had he adopted children as a single man, he was adopted himself as a teen, following his mother’s death. A parent cannot, through sheer alacrity, complete the adoption without the child’s readiness to do so, and vice versa. In this way, the family is constructed through consent and mindfulness; unlike other organizations where prospective parents are given primary agency, family is a mutual decision between parent and child. While the time required to complete these steps varies, Family Focus identifies eighteen months as the standard period between a match and legalization. If a transition is successful, child and parents join in a “covenant ceremony” to become, in the parlance of Family Focus, a “forever family.”
Iannis never made it to forever; he met someone else during the transition. At first, Rick says, Iannis believed that he could continue living in their apartment even though he’d found a new boyfriend. Prior to the adoption process, Rick said he’d never felt threatened by the idea of Iannis sleeping with other people. But circumstances had changed; Rick felt an obligation to protect his inchoate family, and the idea of Iannis being in both relationships was incompatible with Rick’s own vision of fatherhood. Several months after David’s arrival, Iannis moved out.
In a way, Rick was lucky that Family Focus allowed the process to move forward; some agencies terminate an application upon discovering the potential parents have separated. Susan Soonkeum Cox, of Holt International, said that her agency wouldn’t tolerate it. “Obviously if a couple’s going through a divorce, that’s a tumultuous time that you wouldn’t want to bring a child into.” One father I spoke with claimed that, during his adoption process, he had concealed the fact that he and his wife had separated because he knew it would endanger his application.
Currently some agency policies treat divorce like a pathology warranting the loss of adoption eligibility, failing to account for the nearly one-in-two probability that a married couple will divorce. Americans are prone to coupling and uncoupling in a relatively short amount of time, with marriages averaging just eight years before ending in divorce. Adoptions, meanwhile, may require many years to finalize. In the US, nearly 24 million children are raised in single-parent households, so it is hardly inconceivable that a couple will break up during or after the adoption finalization. The question becomes whether a child is better off being raised in a permanent home during a breakup or if that child is better off without a family at all.
David Whitaker says that aside from the first seven years with his biological family, the longest amount of time he spent in any one place was at Elmcrest. According to David, the rules at Elmcrest were strict. Tape lined the floors of the facility, and the residents, walking single file, required permission to cross the tape at any time. He also says that when he needed to use the bathroom, he would need to be escorted by an employee of the facility. He would knock on the bathroom door before entering, then knock on the door when he was done, as a way of asking permission to exit. If, for some reason, the employee had moved, David would continue to knock until his exit was approved. Nor could he simply eat when he was hungry; instead, meal times were standardized. And at no point was touch permitted, whether it was between kids or between kids and employees. “There was no human contact,” David told me.
Both Rick and David characterize the facility as “depressing,” but allow that, compared with other residential facilities, Elmcrest was a relatively good place to end up. They both described it as clean and run by a competent staff who genuinely cared about the welfare of children. More importantly, despite its stringent rules, it was a place where David felt safe, a feeling his biological parents had not been able to provide. He still remembers how his biological father had given him his first bicycle; how much he loved spending time with his father, despite his mother’s resentment of him. He also remembers how, on Easter weekend when he was four, his father never arrived to pick him up. It would be the last time David was told to expect him. At Elmcrest, at least, adults kept their promises.
When David and Rick prepared for their covenant ceremony, the world of Elmcrest was far away. The two visited Rick’s extended family for Thanksgiving and played board games. They’d made it to the other side of Rick’s breakup with Iannis, attended concerts, and vacationed in Puerto Rico, where, lacking a large enough pot, Rick had tried to boil lobsters one end at a time.
Biological kin attain legitimacy through the accident of genetic connection. For adoptive families, the connection must be intended, cultivated, and acknowledged. Up until this point, Rick and David had been instructed by Family Focus to consider each other maybe-father and maybe-son. On June 5, 2009, they would advance themselves purposefully before witnesses as a unit of love.
In his covenant statement, Rick promised that “I am making him my son immediately, unconditionally, irrevocably, and forever. There is nothing that anybody can do or say, including myself or David, that will ever make me change my mind about any of this. This adoption is a Covenant I make directly with David, as his father. It stands independently of the fears, the difficulties, or the confusion that at one time or another can come into the relationship between any father and his son. I promise that I will, in all ways, respond to David, respect him, and protect him as his father—forevermore.”
“Trust has not always been easy for me, but I have grown to trust Rick,” David admitted in his covenant statement. Of Rick, he said, “I believe his promises to always respect me, to always protect me, and to always respond to me as my father—forever.”
With that, Rick and David had become a forever family of two.
One adoptive father, who asked not to be named, remembers as a young man sensing selfishness in the woes of people struggling to conceive. It is not without some chagrin that he now remembers the harshness of his response. “I would often challenge them, saying, ‘Well, how would you feel about adopting?’ or, ‘What happens if you can’t have children?’ I would say stuff like, ‘You know, you could be environmentally friendly and do recycling and adopt rather than make your own.’”
In the US, however, it has become common to hear of childless adults spending thousands of dollars on in vitro fertilization, fertility consultations, acupuncturists, or herbal supplements meant to actualize dreams of producing “their own.” Adoption, in contrast, seems less indulgent to some—more sustainable, even ethical. It isn’t unusual for adoptive parents to talk about “making a difference” in a child’s life, or “giving back,” phrases imbued with the idea of responsible citizenship. This feeling can be especially strong among single adoptive fathers. Since they are generally considered less attractive applicants, single men who successfully adopt often accept less sought-after children—kids with disabilities or health problems, behavioral issues or mental illness. Brian Tessier is frustrated when he hears people call the children available in the US foster-care system irreparably broken. Certainly they have suffered loss. But Tessier says he has seen kids flourish in permanent homes, and has seen it happen with his own children.
At fourteen, David was already too old in the eyes of many prospective parents. His age didn’t bother Rick, however. “As an adult, I didn’t feel like I had to have a kid with my genes. It didn’t have to be blond. It didn’t have to be anything. I would take any kid,” Rick said.
“I feel like it’s a moral responsibility,” he continued, “to not bring more kids into the world until the kids who are already here have a home.”
Yet Brennan says that most of the prospective parents who contact Family Focus will only consider younger children—the younger, the better. They talk about wanting to “mold” a child, and they associate older children with greater psychological damage that precludes pliability. An imagined line forms between the years of a child’s potential and when it’s too late.
“They want to feel safe. They want to feel like they can nurture the kid, parent the kid for a while, and a lot of them seem to think that stops around the age of eleven,” Brennan told me when I visited him in Little Neck, New York, in August. “So they’ll come in and say, ‘I want a kid under eleven. I don’t want to deal with the teenage stuff, the sexuality, the drugs, the pulling away from the family,’ that kind of thing. So you try to educate them on that.”
Of course, the need for parental care doesn’t end with childhood. Brennan doubts it ever diminishes completely—he even once received a call from a forty-six-year-old mother who wanted to be adopted. (Family Focus does not honor such requests.) There are dire consequences for teenagers who aren’t placed with permanent families; one out of four kids who “age out” of the foster-care system are incarcerated within two years of leaving, while a quarter of the un-adopted ex-foster population will report homelessness at some point in their lives. For those working to place children, the teenage years become a kind of behavioral and statistical time bomb.
The preference for young children also disproportionately affects minority groups. In 2002, black children stayed in foster care an average of 40.8 months; white children 24.1 months. Ten years later, lengths of stay in foster care had decreased for all groups, but black children still remained in foster care an average of twenty-nine months, more than the 2002 numbers for white children, who now averaged 18.3 months.
Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, who has written for the New York Times’s Motherlode blog, relinquished her son for adoption at birth, and it infuriates her that many adoptees want babies when there are many older children without homes. When we talked, she expressed that, to her, blood ties are immutable, and with something like tough love, she asserted that the body’s limitations must be accepted: “You can’t have a baby? Then: You. Can’t. Have. A. Baby! That’s the reality. It seems that we’re trying so hard to play God.”
In September 2015, I met Stephen Westman, a hotel consultant from Illinois who, while researching adoption online, found the 411-4-DAD website and used it to begin the adoption process. Westman said he realized that he’d reached a point in his life where he was spending more time researching adoption online than looking at dating websites. “I can’t control when I fall in love with someone,” he concluded, “but I can control the fact that I want to be a dad.”
Westman had flown to New York City on a business trip for his employer, Riff Hotels. We met in the 1980s-themed lobby of Riff’s Chelsea location, then walked to a nearby restaurant. Westman wore a backward baseball cap and a backpack, which together made him appear much younger than thirty-seven. We talked about his experience meeting with an adoption social worker, how he’d anticipated that she would try to scare him away with horror stories of adoptions gone wrong. Instead, it was almost a bonding experience: She seemed to understand him, and like an overeager student, he kept finishing her sentences. He had done his homework—reading adoption books, consulting with his “Yoda,” Brian Tessier, and adjusting his schedule so he could work from home. In the summer of 2015, Westman had even moved from Manhattan to Highland Park, Illinois, where he now has the perfect yard for a child to play in. He was attracted to the area by the excellent school system, the liberal and educated demographic makeup, and proximity to family. With the move, Westman’s parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their children now live minutes away, and he envisions a mutually supportive family structure bridging the three homes.
Westman imagines creating a life for a child not unlike his own in Illinois, where his father and mother attended their three boys’ concerts and games, where his mother returned home from work to prepare her kids’ lunch midday, and where, after school, his father organized baseball games in the yard. Sports figure largely in his conception of raising a child, the trappings of familial love lying somewhere in the running and roughhousing, father throwing, son catching, and a triumphant slide back to home base. During a trip to Massachusetts to visit Tessier, Tessier’s youngest had reminded Westman of himself as a boy in the way he drew up lists of games to play—football, basketball—exemplifying Westman’s fantasy of his own possible future. “This is what I want,” he remembers thinking.
Throughout the adoption process, Westman had been asking himself the tough question: Which children would he be receptive to parenting? When he closed his eyes, he imagined playing sports with a child somewhere between the ages of four and seven; that eliminated the possibility of older children or children with severe medical or mental disabilities.
“My analogy is, if you buy a used car, you want one that’s had zero or as few accidents as possible and as few owners as possible,” he told me. “It’s that same thing. I want a child that’s had the least amount of trauma and the least amount of placements, the fewest times back and forth between different challenges. That’s not an option. What I want is not an option with ‘waiting children’”— children with special needs eligible for adoption—“so then you get to a scale of one to ten: What do you think you can deal with?”
With some self-consciousness, Westman admitted that he’d considered creating a spreadsheet to help organize the chaotic thrum of competing sensibilities. Though aware that he was being evaluated, he was also evaluating children. He knew there was a limited population of children he felt prepared to adopt, and he realized how this exposed certain limitations in his character. It was like holding up a mirror that reflected one’s own degree of selflessness.
“If I’m being real,” he said, “can I handle a kid who has fetal alcohol syndrome and has physical deformities in his face? Can I handle the scrutiny of people looking at that child weird? Can I handle him or her getting made fun of? I don’t think I can, and when you say that out loud, you feel like a real asshole because it’s a kid and he did nothing or she did nothing to have that. The process of figuring out what is best for you is humbling. It makes me a little bit sad because I question if I’m the worst if a kid with cerebral palsy is someone that I don’t want to adopt? He or she could be the most amazing human being ever.”
Obviously, biological parents don’t get to select the specs of their offspring, raising the question of how many qualifications prospective adoptive parents ought to be permitted. If a prospective parent wants a child badly enough, shouldn’t he be willing to accept any available child? Put another way, if a person isn’t willing to raise a child with disabilities or illness, why should he be granted the privilege of parenthood? Yet the adult who feels competent to parent a child with bipolar disorder isn’t always the adult who believes he can parent the child with fetal alcohol syndrome. Westman considers himself capable of successfully addressing emotional trauma or behavioral issues; what he cannot imagine is watching his child physically suffer for the rest of his life. Few can.
Rick Whitaker used to worry about whether his son received enough nurturing. He’d bring David to his sister’s house, just to ensure proximity to female love, in case it was, after all, superior. Associating female parenting with touch, he sometimes wishes that he could comfortably hug and kiss his son, but David had experienced enough sexual trauma by the time they became a family that Rick didn’t feel as though he could physically nurture David without scaring him.
Yet when I visited father and son at Rick’s office at Columbia University’s Italian Academy last summer, their communion of two suggested itself in a crisscross of dialogue and bemused glances, the way they’d turn to the other to fill in gaps of memory. Rick listened attentively when David spoke, and once, when David didn’t understand a question, he asked his father to explain. They teased each other. They laughed about the glasses David wore the first time they met.
When asked of that initial meeting, David admitted that he was a little afraid of Rick at first because Rick didn’t speak much. This didn’t offend Rick. “I think I can be a little intimidating,” he said empathetically, as though he, too, had once been wary of himself. But trust isn’t automatic; it is a labor. For these two, trust was found through Rick comforting David after David and his first boyfriend broke up. It formed over all the times Rick insisted on home-cooked dinners. It emerged through the repetition, through the everydayness, with which Rick conveyed his commitment, and was reinforced by the work David himself applied to trusting his new father.
It seemed funny to them now to remember how David, early in the “transition,” confessed with nervous gravitas that he believed he was gay. “Well, duh,” Rick said.It wasn’t the answer David had expected, but that openness would become the way he defined Rick and, eventually, himself—a shared DNA of values.
They also agree that the worst week of their life together was when David’s biological mother visited them in New York. David’s mother and younger sister, Oprah—who, because she was born after the other children were removed, was still in their mother’s custody—had come for what was meant to be a brief visit. Instead, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the visit was drawn out. Rick was already wary of David’s mother, who, when they’d met at the New York State Fair four years before, had insisted as they careened between the butter statues and Empire State agriculture achievements on introducing Rick to people as her “brother.” Rick’s misgivings were substantiated when neighbors kept finding Oprah wandering around outside, unaccompanied, while he and David weren’t home. Oprah was five at the time, and couldn’t yet speak. Rick says her mother would scream at her until she cried herself to sleep. At one point Rick called Child Protective Services, and though David’s mother was able to maintain custody of Oprah, David says that later, perhaps out of spite, she suggested that Rick was probably a pedophile.
Rick is not affectatious, and is more likely to convey remove than warmth to a stranger. But in talking about David’s mother, he began to cry. “I can’t believe my son lived with that,” he said. “When she got in the car she didn’t even say goodbye to him.” This behavior seemed unimaginable to Rick, a man who’d waited seven years for a son, of whom that son would later say, “He’s never done anything to let me down.”
According to Jack Brennan, there’s a fundamental legal oversight in child welfare that must be remanded. “You have to have a driver’s license. I’m helping my son rebuild a house. The permits that I need are driving me out of my mind, but you have to have that. You have to have a wedding license. But you don’t have to have a license to have a kid. What message are we giving?” He believes that parenthood, too, should require a license, that no one is entitled by virtue of reproductive success alone. As Brian Tessier likes to joke, get twelve vodka shots in a guy, and he might end up a parent. Brennan’s idea is that licensing might effect greater respect and appreciation for parenthood.
The Hurricane Sandy visit was a painful reminder of the failures that had splintered David’s biological family. But this time, unlike other instances before, David had an adult in his life to counterweight sadness and neglect with empathy and support. Now, when he thinks about his future, David sees himself studying psychology and social work, maybe even in the foster system. He is confident that one day he’ll raise a child, either with a partner or in the manner of his own father. “I don’t need another man in my life to make me feel like I can have a family,” he says. “If I’m single for the rest of my life, I’ll totally be happy with that. I’ll start my own family.”