The bad weather wou…

The bad weather wouldn’t be an indication of the news that University assistant professor John Erwin and his partner Larry Sonsthagen were traveling to hear that day in Center City.
They were headed to the court to finalize the joint adoption of the boy in the back seat, Alex. The judge could take the boy away from the couple, though they had already spent a whole year as a family.
As they parked the car and quickly walked into the Chisago County Government Center, the couple didn’t notice the U.S. flag flying in the still rainy sky. Even though the drive had only taken an hour, they had journeyed to this point for a year and a half.
One 20-minute hearing later, with the adoption decree in hand, the two men became legal fathers to the boy.
This scene is becoming more common across the nation, but statistics on the number of homosexual parents are difficult to gather.
In her 1992 article in the journal “Child Development,” University of Virginia psychology professor Charlotte J. Patterson cited various estimates. Her review puts the population of gay male parents between 1 million and 3 million; lesbian women parents numbered between 1 million and 5 million. She cited estimates of the number of children in such families to be between 6 million and 14 million.
Rainbow Families, a Twin Cities organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families, has doubled its membership each year since its founding in 1997. It now has 825 dues-paying members and 1,200 people on its mailing list.
Patterson emphasized that no accurate figures are available because of many difficulties in doing quantitative research. Barriers include the difficulty in defining the terms gay, lesbian and parent, as well as collecting information about a large random sample of people who fear homophobia.
“There are almost certainly millions of children who have lesbian and gay parents,” Patterson said. “How many millions is the subject of dispute.”
Life at home
Erwin and Sonsthagen’s three-bedroom home in a quiet residential neighborhood along the Mississippi is a far cry from the drag-queen-and-leather scene stereotype about the gay community.
Erwin, an assistant professor in horticulture at the University, spends many late afternoons planting flowers and taking care of the lawn. A hand-built wooden fence with a gate surrounds the backyard. Inside the home, a warm tungsten lamp is the only light in the evening. Various family photos decorate the living room.
Chores are divided evenly: Erwin does most of the cooking and Sonsthagen is usually in charge of laundry. Erwin goes to the neighborhood meetings.
Both fathers help Alex with homework. On one occasion Alex was grounded when he got caught lying that he didn’t have any.
Alex said he wants to be a football star some day — “or a basketball player, if I’m not good at football,” he said. He constantly asks his fathers to play catch, which they often do, at least until the 12-year-old exhausts the adult men.
Erwin and Sonsthagen have two kids; the older one, Jeremy, is a student at Winona State University in Winona, Minn. Jeremy chose to keep his old family’s surname, Modzelewski.
He comes home for some weekends, working part time as a landscaper and hanging out with his friends instead of spending time with his family — like any 20 year old, Erwin said. Lately, Jeremy has been bringing his girlfriend home with him to have dinner with his family.
Erwin adopted his first son Jeremy as a single parent when Jeremy was 13. After the fathers saw Jeremy go through adolescence and graduate from high school, they started considering joint adoption of another child. In 1998, they jointly adopted Alex, who is now 12.
Like any adoption, Jeremy and Alex have not had seamless transitions into their new family.
Growing up with an abusive biological father and two previous step fathers — his mom married three times — Jeremy said he still cannot call Erwin “dad,” even though he regards him as his father.
Sonsthagen said he first came into Jeremy’s life as an “intrusion.” At the time, Jeremy was going through adolescence with a single father. Their relationship began more like friends, but it’s becoming more paternal everyday. Jeremy comes to Sonsthagen to talk about emotional issues more often.
Alex moved away from his biological families to his foster parents’ home, and then to a new adoptive home. As a result, Sonsthagen said, Alex is still not 100 percent convinced he has a permanent home.
Erwin and Sonsthagen said they want Alex to have a relationship with his biological family someday, if that’s what he wants.
“He’s adopted. He should have more questions. ‘Where is my mom and dad? What are they doing right now,'” Sonsthagen said. “Those are good questions to ask.”

A long, slow process
Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Human Services show that as of Jan. 14, there were 1,596 children under state guardianship, 882 of whom need a permanent home immediately.
About 70 percent of those who are under state custody have been diagnosed with a psychological or medical disability.
When Alex came to his new home, he was quiet and didn’t joke around or wrestle as he does now. He was so far behind in his school that he could barely read. He was on medication for Attention Deficit Disorder — which explained his “almost zombie-like” behavior, said Sonsthagen — and has a history of other medical problems.
Richard Gwynne, a county social worker and Alex’s legal guardian until he was adopted, said all the children who come to his unit have histories of abuse and neglect.
A family that wants to adopt a child must go through a rigorous evaluation, including criminal checks, personal references and a questionnaire of personal and family history.
“It’s a way of really, really getting people to think deeply about, is this really what they want to do? Can they do it? Is this the right time?” said Judy Haines, a social worker for who did the home study for Alex.
Social workers and the family then look for a child based on the study and child’s history. Once there’s a potential match, the child will gradually be introduced to the family.
Eventually, the child is placed in the family’s home, where they live together for up to a year, until the adoption is finalized in court.
During this probational period, the social worker visits the home to check on the family and make sure everything is working in the interests of the child.
Even with the lengthy screening process, some kids end up in more than one house. The disruption rate of placement in Minnesota is about 5 percent, whereas the acceptable national rate is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, Haines said.
“Sometimes what we deal with in our unit are people coming back and saying, ‘You know, I think I made a mistake. Can you get this child out of my home?'” Gwynne said.
Gwynne had a good feeling about Alex living with Erwin and Sonsthagen, he said.
“It’s exciting watching this family blend,” Gwynne said. “John and Larry and Jeremy blend with the kid. It’s a really exciting thing to watch.”
These days, many of Alex’s initial problems have been resolved. His ADD has gone away. His reading ability has improved since his fathers started helping him with his homework. And he is emotional and expressive like other children his age.

Life in school
Jeremy didn’t tell any of his classmates his father was gay for many years.
But when he was in high school, Jeremy finally got tired of lying to his friends about why his dad didn’t date women or get married. One day, when his four closest friends were sitting around, he decided to come clean.
“In tenth grade, I told them all, just to sort out who were my friends and who weren’t,” Jeremy said. “I only lost one, because he was a bigot. So I don’t talk to him anymore.”
These days, Erwin and Sonsthagen are concerned about Alex. He’s entering adolescence and going into junior high next September.
Gerry Tyrrell, former board chair of Rainbow Families, said a hostile climate in schools — especially in junior high — is a huge issue for GLBT parents and their children.
“Teachers don’t talk about [sexual orientation], but kids talk about it. And the kids don’t hear anything from the teachers about, ‘That’s not OK to be teasing them,'” Tyrrell said.
“The word ‘fag’ or ‘that’s so gay’ is commonplace,” he said. “It is normal and average in our school system to hear those words.”