In the previous issue of OUT FRONT, an article titled Weighing Our Options: Queer Family Planning dove into the world of family expansion for LGBTQ folks through means of intrauertine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF) surrogacy. Many couples find that to be their preferred route when they are ready to bring children into their universe. For many individuals and couples, however, the time and cost of embryo fertilization, implantation, and surrogacy can be too prohibitive.
That’s when the idea of foster parenting and adoption becomes the top choice for many in the LGBTQ community. Fortunately for queer families in Colorado, this an amazing part of the country for queer folks to be matched with homes that want to share their love and grow.
The Colorado Heart Gallery (CHG), in partnership with the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS), and The Adoption Exchange is providing hope for both families and children in need. CHG is a photography display website of young people who are available for adoption, and with a simple click, one can peruse images and read information about each child’s interests and hobbies.
It’s through the Heart Gallery that Jason Cianciotto and Courter Simmons ultimately found their son Derrik. The gay couple residing in New York have been together since 2003, and exchanged vows in 2006 at a private ceremony with their families (same-gender marriage wasn’t legalized in their home state of NY until 2011.) Finally, in 2016, they were ready to begin the process of becoming parents.
“We explored surrogacy, which turned out to be prohibitively expensive,” said Courter Simmons. “We explored private adoption, which is also expensive and has all of the pitfalls of that, and we explored international adoption, which is sometimes problematic for an LGBT couple.”
Exhausting options, the two landed on the best fit for their family and chose to adopt through a proxy system. They went through the required 60 hours of comprehensive certification and steps of licensing to become foster parents first, a requirement to proceeding with the adoption process. Through that training alone, they learned a lot.
“One of the things that was really clear from the licensing process was that the foster system, whether you want to just foster or you want to eventually adopt, is wholly set up to provide a steady stream of safe, and hopefully loving, families for kids in temporary need of care,” Jason said. Knowing that Courter and Jason did not want to foster long-term, Jason began his search through the Heart Gallery database for a child available for adoption, one who would hopefully be a good match for him and Courter permanently.
While all states in the U.S. permit same-gender couples to joint foster and eventually adopt, the Heart Gallery provides information to prospective parents, but the choice is ultimately up to the child if they are open to being placed in an LGBTQ family’s home.
Courter and Jason began looking in cities with larger populations of youth available for home placements and eventually found their way to the Colorado Heart Gallery, and to Derrik’s profile in Colorado Springs in 2017. He was 11, and Jason sent Courter a text message with a screenshot of Derrik’s profile and said, “I think we found our son.” Courter’ replied, “I think so, too.”
“We immediately inquired,” said Jason, “and our first answer was no.” Though the online profile said that Derrik was open to many different kinds of families, the adoption caseworker told them that his file stated a ‘mom and dad family would be better.’
One of the reasons why we inquired about him, [his profile] was worded in such a way that made it pretty clear to people who were clued in that Derek was a child who might not have acted ‘gender typical,’ and could grow up to be LGBTQ,” Jason said. So, after weeks of communicating with the caseworker, the question was finally presented directly to Derrik.
“She asked him what he would think about being in a two-dad family, and he responded that he actually would prefer that,” said Jason. “He was afraid that if he was in a mom-and-dad family, they wouldn’t let him play with dolls.”
“We need parents who will accept and affirm a child for who they are today and who they will become later in life,” said Mary Gerlach, communications manager at Colorado Office of Children, Youth, and Families. She went on to say that it’s particularly important for younger children who haven’t fully realized or been able to express their gender identity or sexual orientation yet in life.
“We want to make sure that we have a welcoming and affirming family should that child later identify as LGBTQ,” Gerlach said.
The Heart Gallery is not only a recruiting tool for potential parents, the whole process is a way of providing a special experience for the kids to be able to showcase their inner light and spirit.
“It’s really nice, because it’s sort of fun for that young person,” said Korey Elger, onging manager at the Colorado Division of Child Welfare. “They have a nice photo shoot and they get pictures of themselves that are professional that they also get a copy of. We try and make it really fun so that it’s a very normal process for them, and they get to view their picture and figure out which picture they like best.” The kids also get to provide input for what goes in their bio, so that their voices are able to reach the parents who will be the best match for them.
It was through the bio that Jason and Courter knew they had found a great match for their family in Derrik.
“It’s all very theoretical when you’re going to be a foster parent,” Jason said. “There are these kids out there, but it’s a very blurry kind of thing in your mind. Once it crystallizes with the image of an actual person, and you start to think about that person, it becomes very real. Then the fear is that something will happen that will mess that up, and that was the hardest part of our journey.”
While Courter and Jason were privy to some of Derrik’s information in his case file, some of it was either excluded or just unknown, and portions of Derrik’s medical files were kept sealed until the couple was fully immersed and invested in getting their hopeful son home with them.
“I think it’s worth pointing out that one of the things that is a reality is that there’s a higher likelihood that the children who are free for adoption have some kind of special needs,” said Jason. “We didn’t know that Derrik had had surgery to remove a brain tumor until the full disclosure call.” This call included everyone on Derrik’s care team, and they went through his file, point by point, and even with all the disclosures from healthcare providers, psychologists, and foster parents, there were still inaccuracies the couple would later find out.
“We didn’t know until we took him to a routine doctor’s appointment that he actually has epilepsy, and it seems that no one involved in this case actually knew that either,” said Jason. “We knew that he had seizures while he had a brain tumor; we knew the seizures stopped after the brain tumor, and we knew he was taking medications to prevent seizures. But, I think that this speaks more broadly to one of the most glaring problems in the foster system, which is that when you agree to care for a child as a foster parent, you are legally not allowed to see their medical records, because it is a HIPAA violation.”
Courter, Jason, and Derrik have been a family now for more than two years, and while there has been the expected period of acclamation, the health and safety of Derrik is no longer in question, and through the Colorado Heart Gallery, all involved truly found the best fit out there.
“I fully researched Colorado’s LGBTQ protection laws and realized we were in a state where we were protected and everyone was on our side and wanted the best for Derrik,” Jason said. “When they realized that we were the best for Derrik, they were completely with us, regardless of our gender identity or sexuality. In fact, a few of them said, ‘You guys are perfect for him.’”
Now, Derrik has followed in Courter’s footsteps in loving theatre, singing and performing, and he even dresses up in drag with his own set of costumes and wigs. It is, in fact, a perfect match for what a supportive, queer family can look like.
It’s through these matches providing unique kids in need with a home that make them feel safe and loved that bring people like Elger back to doing this work every single day.
“I think we have the most amazing jobs in the world,” said Elger. “I can’t imagine not being in this field. Yes, there are hard days, but you get to be with families when they’re at their highest of highs, and that would bring me back every day of the week.”