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Two Foster/Adoptive Parents Talk About Opening Their Homes and Hearts

Mary McGowan and Dennis Patrick don�t know each other, but they have been living lives that mirror each other in important ways. Both are openly gay, and both have adopted multiple children after foster parenting them. Both were initially rejected as foster parents because they were gay, but together, they�ve since foster parented more than 40 children over the years. And both say they have received extraordinary gifts of love by opening their hearts to children in need of caring families.

Mary McGowan

parentingA foster parent in Minnesota for almost 18 years, McGowan�s path to foster parenting started in the Big Sister program. She enjoyed being a Big Sister, but she wanted to offer youth more than the program�s weekly meetings.

McGowan applied to be a foster parent in Hennepin County 20 years ago, but was rejected because she was a lesbian. She moved to another county in the state and applied again three years later. This time her application was successful, but she could sense the agency�s reluctance when they learned she was a lesbian during the home study. The agency accepted her into the program, but it didn�t place any children with her for nearly three years.

�It was pure discrimination,� McGowan says. �I kept seeing billboard advertisements saying the county needed foster homes. I was licensed, but no kids were placed with me. Finally, the county placed children with me. I proved myself, and I became one of their best foster homes.�

McGowan eventually left the county and returned to Hennepin. She has foster parented approximately 30 children over the years.
�My life has come full circle,� McGowan says. �Now I�m a professional trainer and I contract for Hennepin County, among others, on a variety of issues including LGBTQ kids in the system and foster/adoption issues.�

McGowan now has a big family. She has adopted three children (ages 6, 7 and 9) and is foster parenting two others (an infant and a 4-year-old), whom she also hopes to adopt. She recently had a commitment ceremony with her partner, Mary Beth, who has two teenage biological children from a previous relationship. All seven children walked down the aisle at the couple�s ceremony, with Mary Beth�s daughter carrying the baby.

This newly blended family is still finding its way.

�Mary Beth�s children are adjusting � it�s all new to them,� says McGowan. �We thought they were having a hard time because their mom is now with a woman, but actually they were having a hard time adjusting to the little kids. It was ironic.�

The family previously lived in a suburb of Minneapolis, but McGowan said they felt isolated. They moved into the city, where they feel more welcome as a lesbian couple with a multiracial family that includes kids with special needs.

But the children don�t see themselves as having special needs, McGowan says, now that they have a �forever family.� Instead, they focus on sharing their home with the foster children, who are waiting for a family. McGowan�s three adopted daughters are excited about the two pending adoptions, and they wish they had room for more.

�The older girls want someone to build us a house on the TV show �Extreme Makeover,�� McGowan says. �They say, �Then we could take that group of siblings that needs a home.��

McGowan expects to continue foster parenting as long as she is able. McGowan also puts her background in clinical psychology and childhood development to work as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children in the child welfare system.

McGowan advises gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people considering foster parenting or adoption through the child welfare system to �hang in there and be honest.� She recommends being forthright in all applications, because any omissions �will come back and get you.

�The system has changed tremendously over the years,� McGowan says, noting that it offers new opportunities for hopeful parents. Most of the children awaiting placement through public agencies in her area are older children, McGowan says, with special needs or with siblings. (See the North American Council on Adoptable Children.)

McGowan urges potential parents, �Get support. Don�t think you can do this on your own.�

For GLBT adults who are not sure whether they can commit to foster parenting, McGowan suggests serving as guardians ad litem or court-appointed special advocates (CASA).

�You can volunteer to be the voice of a child in the court,� says McGowan. �There are so many kids in the system who identify as LGBTQ, and they don�t have anyone to represent them.�

Dennis Patrick

Like McGowan, Patrick�s path to parenthood passed through the Big Brother/Big Sister program, which nurtured his commitment to caring for children in a more significant way.

He and his partner of nine years, Tom, felt strongly that they would pursue parenthood as foster parents. Neither felt a need to be a biological parent, nor did they consider it necessary to parent a baby. While they felt they could be good parents, they weren�t certain. Foster parenting allowed them to care for children without making a lifetime commitment at the outset.

The couple first applied through a private religious agency in Michigan, where they live. While they were open about their sexual orientation throughout the application and home study process, they didn�t learn until the final step that the agency�s director would not license a same-sex couple. They began the process again, with another agency, with whom they have worked for the past six years.

Since then, Dennis and Tom have served as foster parents to more than a dozen children and have adopted four sons (ages 11, 7, 7 and 5).

�With the second agency, we told the director immediately that we are a couple,� Patrick says. �We explained what happened previously, and the director urged us to talk with a lesbian couple whom the agency licensed as a foster family. In the application and the training, all the references were to �Parent 1� and �Parent 2� rather than �Mother� and �Father.� On top of all that, a foster parent leading the training came out to us as a lesbian mom. We were convinced we were going to be able to work with this agency.�

Now the parent of four children, Patrick says he would like to take one more child. While their lives are busy, with both Dennis and Tom working, the family continues to take short-term foster placements. Babysitters and family friends help juggle the caretaking.

�It sounds clich-, but it really does take a village,� Patrick says. �Tom is a high school teacher, so some of his students are babysitters for our kids. Some of our friends babysit when they have days off from work. We�ve become friends of the foster care family where two of our sons were placed before. We also celebrated a second Thanksgiving with the families where siblings of our kids are placed.

�All these different people come into our lives as a result,� Patrick says. �It�s a tremendous gift.�

Like McGowan, Patrick urges GLBT adults who want to be parents to consider adoption and foster care through the domestic child welfare system.

�There are so many kids that need homes and so many agencies looking for good homes,� he says. �There are wonderful things about adopting older kids, special needs kids and sibling groups. It�s the best thing Tom and I have ever done.�

Patrick says other adults sometimes wonder how he and Tom are able to serve as short-term foster parents, saying they would find it hard to say goodbye to a child after caring for them for some time.

�But that�s the goal of foster parenting, to have kids be reunited with the biological families,� Patrick says. �You�re part of a team that tries to get them back home. There�s nothing special about us. We just hope they have a positive experience that they take with them after they leave our home. And I think about this: if no one did this, all these kids would live in residential facilities, and none would ever have a home.�

Some of the children whom Dennis and Tom did not adopt returned to their birth families or were adopted by biological relatives. Others moved into residential treatment homes because their needs were greater than a foster family could provide.&nbsp

Patrick acknowledged that it�s sometimes difficult not knowing how former foster children are doing.

�You hope and pray they�re doing fine, but you don�t know,� he says. �You have to be willing to take that chance. It�s worth it, and you know you had an impact on those kids.�

Mary McGowan conducts trainings and workshops on GLBT issues in the child welfare system. If you are interested in having McGowan deliver a training, workshop or conference keynote address, contact her at 612/866-5499.

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