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Loving mothers raising healthy boys

Act 1 would put a stop to that.

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THE RICKMAN-HUFFMAN FAMILY: On a trip to Disney World.
  • THE RICKMAN-HUFFMAN FAMILY: On a trip to Disney World.

In 2004, Stephanie Huffman adopted a 2-year-old born with hydrocephalus through the state Department of Human Services. He had to have a shunt to drain fluid around the brain into his spinal column. He was unable to eat; he was fed through a tube into his stomach. He was just learning to walk. He was hearing-impaired, suffered from seizures. His medical file, 7 inches thick, gave Huffman a fright.

But Huffman knew that this toddler, a mixed-race child who was only 3 pounds at birth and 7 pounds at eight months, needed a loving home, and she knew she could give him one. As a young girl, she'd raised her own two brothers while her mother worked and went to school. A devout Christian, Huffman believed that “God wouldn't give me more than I could handle,” and in saying that she laughed hard. She hadn't known just how much that would be.

Six months after Huffman brought Tyler home, he “didn't need that feeding tube,” she said. He'd learned to drink, and was learning to chew. With the help of physical, speech and occupational therapists and devoted mothering, Tyler embarked on a difficulty journey back to health. He still has problems with learning and speech, but, Huffman brags in the way that parents do, he's in the 97th percentile for his weight and 60th for height. For all his difficulties, Tyler, now 7, is one lucky kid.

How many people are willing to take on such a burden?

Not enough. The estimate at DHS' division of Children and Family Services is that on any one day, it has 3,700 kids in its care, but only 1,000 foster homes.

Under Act 1, the new law that says cohabiting adults can't foster or adopt, there will be even fewer. Tyler, for example.

Huffman, 39, lives with Wendy Rickman, 37, her partner of 10 years. Both hail from Brookland, a little town outside Jonesboro; both are professors at the University of Central Arkansas in the college of education, in the library, media and information technology program. In days past, they would have been called librarians. 

When Stephanie adopted Tyler, Rickman was 7 months pregnant, the sperm donor a close friend. Keegan wasn't so easy either — he was allergic to both milk and soy products and threw up all the time. Rickman said that at one point, Tyler was crying and Keegan projectile vomited into her face and all she and Huffman could do was laugh. “We asked for this!” Huffman said.

And after the first year with their boys, they asked for more: In 2005, the state approved the couple for another adoption. But while it took only three months for the state to place Tyler with Huffman and Rickman, three years passed with no success the second go-round. Huffman and Rickman don't think it was an accident; they believe an atmosphere of apprehension at the agency — engendered by political maneuvering that finally resulted in Initiated Act 1 on the 2008 ballot — stalled the process.

Did Arkansans, when they voted 57 to 43 percent to approve Act 1 in November, mean to exclude people like Huffman and Rickman from caring for or adopting children? Two women who have the support of their family, friends, neighbors and workplace? Who have, in their terms, “built a village” for their sons, one that includes strong male role models among uncles, cousins and grandfathers? The extended Huffman and Rickman families go to the beach together, camp up at Lake Norfork together. They boys have been to Disney World. They like Batman and Star Wars, and their bedroom is full of plastic characters. It's also full of books, thanks to their librarian moms. Their backyard has a soccer goal and a swing set and a fort. They go to church. Their behavior draws compliments from the other mothers that Rickman and Huffman know. They have advantages many families in Arkansas do not.

Whether voters meant to or not, they did. Now, Rickman and Huffman are among the 17 adult plaintiffs in Cole v. Arkansas, ACLU Arkansas's suit in Pulaski Circuit Court to nullify the law as unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs include a married couple who, under Act 1, would no longer be allowed to have their friends adopt their children in the event of their death, a grandmother who wants to foster her own grandchild but who lives with another woman, a grandmother whose biological daughter would like her to be able to adopt her children in case of death but whose 35-year relationship with another woman disqualifies her, a cohabiting heterosexual woman who was adopted herself and, at 40, would like to adopt. Of the plaintiffs, 10 are women who've already had children.

Last week, the ACLU filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from enforcing Act 1. The injunction was filed on behalf of Cole plaintiff Sheila Cole to prevent the state from putting her grandchild, an infant whom she wishes to adopt, in the custody of another, unrelated family. (The ACLU withdrew the request Monday after the state argued the law hadn't been applied.)

Retired Circuit Judge Steve Choate of Heber Springs, who has handled adoption cases for the Department of Human Services for 18 years, believes Act 1 will eliminate “a good third of the parents” from the pool of potential adoptive couples.

“I have run across so many people who live together … and they have two or three kids and a long-term relationship,” Choate said. A blanket rule against allowing cohabiting couples to take in children or adopt is “just a shame,” he said. “You are cutting off a lot of possibility.”

Choate said the law strips elected officials of their role in making reasoned decisions about what's best for a child, supplanting it with the opinion of people who based their votes on belief rather than knowledge.

Huffman said there were 12 to 15 other potential foster or adoptive parents in the required classes she took before adopting Tyler. When the person running the class asked them what kind of child they'd be willing to adopt, nearly all of them said they wanted a healthy newborn. That is the kind of child that is immediately placed; “the specialist told them they'd have to wait three to five years,” Huffman said. “There are no perfect children,” she said, “but my son Tyler is perfect in my eyes.”

“There are no perfect families” either, said Bill Barling, who heads the North Little Rock non-profit adoption agency Families are Special. He's been placing children with adoptive parents for 15 years. His standard: What is in “the best interest of the child.” That means boys need men as role models in their lives, and girls need women — but not necessarily in the immediate family.

Barling, who has placed 13 children this year, declined to say whether he'd placed a child with a gay or unmarried couple. He did say one potential adoptive parent he was working with has decided to move to another state.

Barling predicts there will be fewer foster and adoptive parents for yet another reason: A general misunderstanding that the law prohibits all unmarried people. The law only applies to cohabiting couples. He thinks it will take a couple of years for the law to be understood.

Barling won't follow a don't ask, don't tell policy, which some have suggested might be a way around the law. In his home studies, he's going to ask if an unmarried couple is having sex. If they are, he said, “I cannot approve them.”

DHS policy prevents non-cohabiting singles that have roommates or boarders from adopting, spokesman Julie Munsell said.

State law requires that couples be married two years before they can adopt or foster, but the state has granted “several” waivers in that regard, Munsell said. A person who is single but engaged to be wed may adopt but must get a waiver — called alternative compliance — on the marriage length requirement.

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