Deaf Lesbians’ Systemic Barriers to Adoption
Ella and Judy discuss the challenges they faced as first-generation lesbian mothers dealing with systemic barriers to adoption.
Domestic Violence Led to Move
Judy: I had five children who I brought with me to Kansas from Oklahoma due to domestic violence that caused a breakdown in spiritual growth, as well as physical, emotional and verbal abuse. I moved to protect my children from this. We lived in a shelter for a long while.
Ella: Just before she left Oklahoma, we both had met and fell in love. Because of this situation with her husband, I supported them the best I could, visiting from time to time. On each visit, I spent time with the children, and got to know them. They were quite young then, the oldest around 8 – 9 years and youngest around 2-3 years old. That was during 1983-1984.
Search for Housing Suitable for Five Children
Judy: Finding our own place with five children was next to impossible. Thanks to a friend in the Vocational Rehabilitation Division, who helped us locate a townhouse that was part of a coop. With that, we finally settled a bit.
Ella: Judy filed for divorce…and after one year, what happened?
Judge Rules in favor of Lesbian Mother
Judy: I got my (maiden) name back. I also got full custody of my children. I was thrilled! My lawyer knew that I was a lesbian and was worried that the judge’s ruling would prejudice against me. However, to our great relief, the judge ruled in my favor!
No Child Support From Former Husband
Ella: A blessing indeed! At that hearing, the judge also ruled that Judy’s ex-husband must pay monthly child support. How much was that?
Ella: Only $200 for five children.
Full Custody Gave Mother Freedom to Take Children to Another State
Judy: When I got full custody, I could then take my children anywhere we wanted to move.
Ella: So they all moved to California, joining me. Not one penny of the $200/monthly child support came from her ex-husband. Luckily, we both managed to find jobs and places to rent. It wasn’t easy, but we scraped by and eventually, we bought a house. The whole time, we worked together as a family.
Blended Family Means Multiple Relationships
Oh, one important point, before Judy and the children moved here, I told several people about falling in love with her and that she had five children. One friend told me that since Judy had five children, I am not having a relationship with only one person but with six people altogether. That hit me hard. It is not right to focus on Judy alone and ignore the children. All the children were as important as Judy and need to be seen as a part of my relationship with Judy (Family picture showing Ella and Judy at top left, with four boys and one girl, all smiling).
Without Adoption, Unrecognized Status as Nonbiological and Non-adoptive Mother
Judy and I shared finances and childcare, but problems existed because of my unrecognized status. Even though my insurance covered all of the children, to ensure they would be taken care of, I had no rights when it came to the children. For example (turns to Judy), do you want to share this incident?
Unable to Make Decision during Medical Emergency without Adoption
Judy: One time I flew to North Carolina for something job-related. That night I arrived, as I was getting ready for the first day of work, someone pressed the light flasher at the door. I opened the door and was told that there was an emergency at home. My son had an infected appendix, necessitating surgery, and I had to fly home before I could start my work there.
Ella: The reason for this was…even though my insurance covered that boy and along with the fact that he lived with me – when the hospital found out that I wasn’t his legal mother, they kicked me out. I explained to them that his mother was in NC for work for the weekend, but they just went “sorry” and made the boy wait for Judy’s appearance and permission before they could operate on him. I had no choice but to call her in North Carolina and tell her to fly back home. At that point, it was very clear that I had zero legal relationship to the children.
Barriers to Adoption When Children Under 18 Years of Age
Judy: That’s what started us thinking about adoption. We did our homework, researched how adoption would work in our case, what would be expected of us, what our house would need to be like, what the requirements would be, and so on. We learned that it would be extremely expensive.
Ella: That’s right, because they were under 18 years of age, plus we were two women. Back in 1983, that was a big deal – although nowadays it can be challenging, it’s much easier – However, back then, it was much harder. So figuring out what would work best was a struggle. Also, since the children’s father was still alive, he could use his privileged status to block any adoption effort on our part. If Judy died, the children would go back to their father instead of staying with me. It was a complicated situation. But, out of the blue, things took a turn….what happened?
Death of Ex-Husband Makes Adoption Easier
Judy: My ex-husband died.
Ella: Our youngest was 12 at that time.
Judy: I was now free to marry again. I could share my children with Ella. She had been fully involved in raising my children and I felt it was not right to limit her. I wanted to share my children with her because I loved, respected and truly appreciated her hard work and the fact that she accepted the children as her own and took on the responsibility of caring for them. She deserved to be recognized as a good mother.
Adoption of Two Oldest Children
Ella: Two things: yes, it would mean the world to me to be recognized as the children’s legal mother…and also, there was the issue of what would happen if Judy died – where would the children go? Even though they had lived with us – with me – all those years, if Judy were to die, they would be taken away from me immediately and probably become wards of the state. That was a terrifying thought. However, adoption was expensive and there was great bias in the system.
Importance of LGBT-Friendly Lawyer for Adoption Process
The year when our youngest was 12, the two oldest were 18 and 19, we found a good lawyer who was a lesbian herself and specialized in handling lesbian and gay adoptions, and met with her. She told us that adopting the two oldest children would be easy because they were adults, and could consent to the adoptions on their own. Adopting the younger children was more complicated because it would involve home study, transfers, and other things.
When I asked the two older children if they wanted me to adopt them, they both responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”. It was a heartwarming moment. With the lawyer’s help, we filed for the adoptions and everything went smoothly. It was such a special and breathtaking feeling at the moment when the adoptions were finalized. We felt even more connected. For the younger three children, though, we decided to wait until our financial and home situation was better. However, after that, life went on, and lots of things happened throughout the years. We were very fortunate that nothing very serious happened though, and that we all stayed together. The adoption idea for the three younger children was put on the back burner.
Adoption of Remaining Three Children
We became grandparents, and life went on…until our daughter developed some health issues and had to check about applying for social security benefits. She learned she could not get her father’s social security due to his debt. She wondered if she could apply under my social security. “That would be fine” I said, “Sure, we could look into that.” However, in order to do this, we needed proof that she was my daughter. That’s when we realized that we should revisit adopting the three younger children.
Judy: Yes, right. We discussed with the three older children –
3/3 Ella: – the three younger children.
Judy: They were all over 18 by then.
Ella: Oh, ok.
Judy: … and they all said “why not?” to the adoption idea. So, we went ahead…and then what happened?
Through Adoption, A Fully Recognized and Legal Family at Last
Ella: We contacted that same lawyer who helped us with the two older children. To help us save money, she gave us tips on how to properly prepare forms to submit to the court. Everything worked out and a court date was scheduled. How many people came with us to court that day?
Judy: We had a full line-up of people – some grandchildren came, even our nephew, Tim. We all went to court, the whole family was there to celebrate, and even Ella’s mother went.
Ella: It was really nice and touching. The judge, who was a man, went through everyone’s names and other details, then asked each child if they agreed to the adoption. When our third child said “Yes, I do agree”, my heart melted. After that, our fourth and fifth children gave their consent. The judge turned to me and asked me if I wanted to adopt all of them and be their mother. I replied, “of course”. The judge pounded his gavel and proudly announced that the adoptions were finalized. Judy and I looked at each other, beaming. We were now a fully recognized and legal family, bound not only by love, but by law, too. That was a powerful feeling (picture of Ella standing in the courtroom with three adult children and judge, all smiling, with their arms around each other). The beaming judge said he thought we had a beautiful story, which meant a lot to us. It was nice to see people’s attitudes slowly changing throughout the years, from strong resistance and negativity to full acceptance and support.
First-Generation Deaf Lesbian Mothers
Judy: I think it’s important to note two things. First, when we moved here, we were pioneers. There were hardly any Deaf lesbians who had children in California. There were quite a few hearing lesbians with children, but no Deaf ones that we knew of that time. If we had problems and needed help, there was hardly anybody for us to turn to. It was tough and we felt alone –
Ella: Our support system was quite nonexistent.
Prior Experience with Stepmother Role Critical
Judy: – it was awful. Ella’s side of the family had a hard time accepting me. We suffered through it. Second, I think Ella was very lucky that I had experience being a stepmother to two children from my first marriage, the person who died. I took on raising my ex-husband’s two children and learned how to be a stepmother. Now, when Ella was one to my children, I knew how important it was to support her.
Ella: She was very good.
Co-Parenting as a Team
Judy: When there were conflicts with the children, it was hard, but it was important for us to stand strong together, and for the children to see me, their mother, in alliance with Ella. It was also important that we discussed any conflicts between the two of us in private –
Ella: It wasn’t easy, but…
Judy: – discuss until we came to an agreement, then come out and talk with the children. The children always knew we worked together, always. That was an important lesson.
Ella: Yes. That’s our story (picture of Ella and Judy in front, with all five adult children standing behind them, smiling, with orange leaves on the trees in background).
Video description: Judy (l) and Ella (r) are seated on a sofa with a few plants behind them. Both are wearing short-sleeved shirts, glasses, and signing their story.