Ethan Robert Comes Home
It sounded like a fine from Torch Song Trilogy when, on the very night they met, Robert told Noel, "The first thing you should know is that I want children." That was March of 1994 and seven years later, in July of 2001, the couple welcomed their adoptive son, Ethan Robert, into their lives. The lengthy adoption process was filled with high hopes, disappointments, frustrations and - ultimately - the kind of joy to which only a new parent can relate.
'There were times when I really thought we would never be parents together," says Robert, an attorney turned stay-at-home dad. His partner, Noel Baril, is an executive with Daimler Chrysler and a member of Affirmations' Board of Directors. 'As if the red tape and cost weren't enough, we also had the added burden of homophobia - sometimes overt and sometimes veiled - to contend with,' says Noel.
The couple worked with a state-funded agency in Michigan for five years before they decided that the only way they would accomplish their adoption dream would be to bear the expense of a private adoption with a gay-friendly agency. The cost, they estimate, will finally come to about $35,000 dollars and the agency they chose is located in Pennsylvania.
'In the five years we worked with the public agency," says Noel, "the closest we came to adopting a child was an eleven-year-old, highly dysfunctional young boy who had faced years of abuse and neglect." This, in spite of their request that they only be offered children up to age four. Near desperate, they began home visits with the boy, which ended abruptly after he spent a weekend with his brother's foster family in rural Michigan. He returned with a serious question for his lesbian social worker at the agency. Was it true, he asked, that he would be subject to sexual abuse at the hands of his gay adoptive parents? The worker was mortified by the question, which was clearly planted by is brother's fundamentalist foster parents. Noel and Robert immediately put the brakes on the arrangement, fearing that the foster parents would make this an issue - perhaps even publicly - if an adoption were finalize. “We were really upset because a bond had already begun to form,” says Robert, while acknowledging that they did the right thing in backing out. "Its not enough to be right in a situation like this," he says. "Had this become a public issue, we wouldn't have had chance."
Next, the couple considered an international adoption through a gay-friendly private agency that they uncovered on the internet. Adoption Services, Inc., of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, was very willing to work with the couple, although Robert and Noel were the first male couple on Adoption Services' waiting list. They had previously worked with a lesbian couple.
Sadly, the agency's liaison in Moscow, though self-described as gay-tolerant himself, cautioned that the Russian court system would not support a gay adoption. Apparently, there were too many "clues" to Noel’s sexual orientation in his application as a single man. "I swear - there was not ONE reference to Barbra or Judy!" he jokes. But it wasn't funny at the time. Not willing to put at risk the liaison's livelihood, Noel’s personal liberty (merely being gay is a crime in Russia), nor the $30,000 agency fee, the couple decided to undertake the domestic adoption of a newborn child. "The clock was ticking," Robert points out. It was now 1999.
By July, 2001, after several personal visits to the agency in Camp Hill, thousands of dollars in home study fees (including duplicate fees for a local agency, since Adoption Services is not licensed in Michigan), Noel and Robert were getting frustrated again. "Maybe we should consider looking for a new agency'," Robert remembers saying. Unwilling to start over, they continued to wait. They had been languishing at number two on the waiting list for months and had clearly been passed over in favor of other, non-gay couples. The agency confirmed that homophobia was again at play. Several birth mothers had rejected the couple for placement of their newborn children because of their sexual orientation.
"When I thought about all of the advantages we were offering to a child," says Noel, the frustration clearly audible in his voice, "this was a hard message to hear. I had already successfully co-parented my two older daughters. We were prepared to provide a life free of physical, emotional and financial need. We offered the love of two parents, one of whom would be a full-time caregiver, adoring extended families, the best health care, the finest education, and so on. Who wouldn't want that for her child?"
Still, they waited.
The call came out of the blue. It was July 24,2001, the day after Roberts 39th birthday and two days before Noel's younger daughter's 17th. A house full of guests was coming from all over the Detroit area to celebrate at Noel and Robert's home in Rochester Hills. The phone rang in Noel's office. "I was a little exasperated," he confesses, "because I was sure it was a request for another piece of documentation. We had already filled a huge, three-ring binder with forms."
"I think we have a child for you," said the Adoption Services agent. His bands shaking, Noel brought Robert in on a conference call and they listened anxiously to every detail. The birth mother was 33 years old, single and employed. She claimed not to have known that she was pregnant and had no prenatal care. She also admitted to having smoked cigarettes and consumed alcohol during her pregnancy, a source of concern to the couple. Still, all indications were that the child was healthy. The biological father was unknown. "What do you think?" the agent asked.
Robert and Noel asked a few more questions - the ones they had rehearsed so many times before. "When can we take custody?" they finally asked. The agent told them to be in Pennsylvania by 7:00 am the next morning. At the party that night, the birthday cake included an extra name - Ethan - and the joy of the event was unparalleled.
By the next afternoon, after an all-night drive with no sleep, Noel and Robert were parents - together. Seven years, four months and six days of waiting were finally over and their son was beautiful.
Now, six months later, Ethan is crawling, standing and trying desperately to walk. He babbles incessantly and pulls his doggie, Liza's tail. He has strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes and is in the 75th percentile of babies his age for height and weight. "He'll be taller than we are by the time he's six!" jokes Robert.
The waiting is not entirely over, though. While the birth mother's parental rights were voluntarily severed when Ethan was one-month old, the birth father has never been identified despite the best (and costliest!) efforts of an attorney retained by Noel and Robert to facilitate the adoption process.
On Ethan's six-month birthday, the attorneys petitioned the State of Pennsylvania to sever the birth father's parental rights in absentia. When this is finalized, the adoption hearing will be held to name Noel as the father.
'Unfortunately, we're still facing homophobia,' says Robert, 'this time on the part of the States of Pennsylvania and Michigan, where its illegal for a same-sex couple to jointly adopt.' Although Robert is the primary caregiver and Noel the primary breadwinner, in the eyes of Michigan and Pennsylvania, Robert will have no rights should Noel die or their relationship end. 'We consider ourselves lucky, though,' admits Robert. "If we lived in Florida or New Hampshire, neither of us could adopt due to our sexual orientation." Instead, the couple plans to prepare legal documents to offer as much protection as possible, while perhaps becoming active in an effort to change Michigan's adoption laws.
"We're ecstatic and can't wait to adopt another child: says Noel. 'Ethan needs a younger brother or sister." They plan to be back on the Adoption Services waiting list as soon as Ethan’s adoption is finalized. In the meantime, they just renewed their Affirmations family membership to include Ethan.
Noel and Robert are happy to share their personal experiences and advice with any singles or couples considering adoption
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