Family Spotlight: Shaun & Blue

AT A GLANCE


Names and ages: Blue and Shaun

Professions: Psychiatrist (Blue), Social Care Consultant (Shaun)

Relationship status: Together 10 years, civil partnership in 2009 in Scotland

Children: Joshi (4), Dylan (2)

Location: South Australia

Always wanted children: Both initially career-focused, but also discussed having a family early on

Process to becoming parents: Approached local government adoption unit in Norwich, Norfolk, U.K. in 2009. Adopted Joshi in 2011 at 15 months old and Dylan in 2013 at 10 months old.

Advice or insight for other parents: “If [you] have [support] networks, utilize them, because it makes things a lot easier.”

Favorite playtime activity: “You can’t put that on my head,” a silly game that involves Joshi trying to throw a blanket on someone’s head

Children call them: Pappa (Blue), Daddy (Shaun)

Author’s statement:

The adoption process in the U.K. is quite stringent and varies greatly from adoption processes in the United States. The steps Shaun and Blue took can be found at the bottom of this spotlight and may be helpful to refer to while reading this story.

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When Shaun and Blue met at a dinner party 10 years ago, their shared wanderlust and desire to become parents brought them together. “That was quite abnormal – to find somebody on the scene who was committed to being a dad,” Blue reminisces.

The pair cultivated many memories over the years. They traveled internationally quite often. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. During their time abroad, they visited orphanages, lending a hand in the nurseries. “I think that [experience enabled] us to definitely know that we wanted younger children,” Shaun shares.

Early on in their relationship, they focused on their careers. Blue pursued his doctorate in psychiatry, and Shaun launched his own business. Over time, especially after Blue graduated and Shaun’s business stabilized, their desire to start a family grew. At the same time, the climate became more favorable for same-sex couples seeking legal recognition and adoption in the U.K.

“Okay, so what happens next?” Blue recalls the pair pondering.

Family and friends asked if they would consider surrogacy. However, their indifference to having genetic children and their experiences in orphanages left them pining to adopt. “There were kids out there who needed stability and some sort of forever family,” Blue explains, his calm pragmatism underscoring the couple’s dedication to being that forever family.

In 2009, the couple decided to adopt and, with that, unknowingly became trailblazers.

They were living in Norwich, England, which Shaun describes as “absolutely beautiful” – but steeped in conservative tradition. Through New Family Social, an online resource that connects same-sex couples pursuing adoption with others in their area, they discovered they were the only couple undertaking the process in the whole of Eastern England. It turned out, they were also among the first. “We knew we were in a unique position,” says Blue.

At an open night for potential adopters at a local university, they learned about the adoption process – and the challenges that lay ahead. “We were a bit shell-shocked,” recalls Shaun. “The stories they tell, scenarios they give, you kind of come out of that with a bit of a reality check.”

They felt the candor about potential obstacles may have been an intentional tactic for weeding out couples unprepared for the rigorous and invasive two-year process. They wondered: “Could we really do this? If we adopted a child with those kind of environmental and biological challenges, having no experience as parents, would we be strong enough to parent a child like that?”

Not discouraged, they set out to learn more. One snowy January day, they met with the first same-sex couple to adopt successfully in Eastern England. “They just inspired us. We realized the full magnitude of what we were getting ourselves in for; the kids were full on! They were really active, running, busy, but also really happy,” Blue recalls. “Both dads were doing a fantastic job.”

Seeing the light at the end of a tunnel they had not yet fully entered, they began the process officially: they filled out an application and met with a social worker, who conducted a brief standardized interview. Then, they waited to hear if they would move forward.

It wasn’t long before they were seated in their first class for prospective adopters.

From the beginning, Shaun and Blue felt like fish out of water. As the only same-sex couple among the 12 couples in the group, they felt they were “navigating through a system that is open and fair but still designed for a heterosexual nuclear family.” The course and materials, for example, did not reflect their scenario.

They did, however, walk away with valuable information about topics relevant to any adoptive parents: handling difficult children, navigating attachment issues, and maintaining connections to the birth family. Shaun was particularly struck by the latter: “[You’re] thinking that you’re going to adopt this child, and when you adopt this child, it’s going to be yours and [the] old life [they] could have had is completely wiped out. In the U.K., they really work hard to make you acknowledge that that isn’t going to be the case.”

“We can see that acknowledging the child’s past and having an open dialogue with that child until they get to the stage where they can make their own decision is really healthy. I think that was the biggest shift, the biggest challenge,” Blue adds.

Shaun reflects often on the mind-set change that came about during the course. “You go through being a couple; always having to look out for your own needs – for each other’s needs – to suddenly sitting in this course, realizing that it’s going to be what’s in the best interest of the child. Sometimes that won’t always be what you feel is right for yourself.”

Their next step was a home study. For four months, a social worker visited weekly. As Shaun describes, the evaluation is “very exposing – it’s almost like a couples therapy session.” They talked about everything from their childhoods to past traumas and appraised the parenting styles of their own parents. They reviewed all past relationships of more than two years, and Shaun and Blue provided contact information for these former partners so they could be used as references.

From the stories of other gay parents, Shaun and Blue understood that much of the adoption experience hinges on a strong relationship with the social worker. “We were blessed to be assigned such an emotionally intelligent social worker. She just guided us through the process,” says Shaun, relieved and grateful. Blue agrees: “There was never any whiff of any kind of discrimination, stereotyping, or anything like that. She was so on the ball and so brilliant about the whole thing. We were really lucky.”

“I think you sometimes worry that they’re going to expose all these flaws, and they won’t let you adopt, but actually what they’re looking for is that you have had to overcome difficulties – that you’ve had challenges in your life and have made it through to the other side intact. Adaptability. They look for resilience as well, the fact that you can reach out and utilize resources if things start to go wrong,” Blue explains. The couple also worried that their case would be hurt by their distance from family and lack of extensive outside support.

But, before they knew it, they were in front of their first panel.

This initial panel was made up of 12 social workers, doctors, volunteers, local government professionals, and prior adopters. Panel members reviewed the case worker’s assessment and the couple’s testimony, then each asked Shaun and Blue one or two questions about topics such as potential care-taking scenarios and their histories. Waiting in another room for the panel to determine its decision was daunting.

The pressure was particularly real for Shaun and Blue because they were participating in a trial program to accelerate adoption that involved completing the initial review and matching process simultaneously, rather than one after the other. That meant, as they waited for the panel’s decision, they already had a child in mind: Joshi.

They had learned about Joshi over the course of the previous four months. While conducting their assessment, the social worker had described him and his situation to Shaun and Blue. When the couple agreed to move forward, she gradually provided more background, though no photos were shared until the match was final.

“[At each] point we got different layers of information: a doctors report, a social workers report, and then a foster parents report,” Blue explains. “Each level of report had different challenges and dimensions to it. At each stage we decided to move forward. He felt like he was very ‘us,’ from the start,” he beams, recalling how well Joshi seemed to fit their vision for their family.

They were thrilled to receive the initial panel’s approval, which meant they could move on to a matching panel. Because of their participation in the trial program, that second panel took place immediately following the initial panel’s approval, rather six months later, as is typical. Shaun and Blue answered additional questions and then once again found themselves leaving the room to wait for an answer.

When they returned: good news!

After many months and much effort, Shaun and Blue were not only approved to adopt, but approved to adopt Joshi.

Within two months, Joshi was home.

The transition began by meeting Joshi’s birth parents. Shaun and Blue took photographs with them and signed an agreement contract to set the terms for future contact. “That can be tough, because you don’t always hear back from them.” Every situation is different, but as Shaun elaborates, “You know you’re going to have to explain why this person may not have shown any interest.” Blue chimes in, “You’re almost aware of that 13-, 14-, 15-year-old in the future and how you’re going to have to explain certain scenarios to him.”

Next, Shaun and Blue spent a week living with Joshi at his foster home, gradually taking over his care. The process was difficult; they witnessed the connection between Joshi and his foster family.

Bringing Joshi home changed their lives. Shaun describes the transformation as instantaneous: “One day we weren’t parents and then Friday we were! Very Surreal. We kept looking at him in the back of the car going, ‘Oh my god’ ‘Oh MY GOD!’”

“It’s just very fast to go from Mr. and Mr. traveling, hedonistic, able-to-buy-whatever-we-wanted once upon a time, to suddenly, in bed by 7:30 PM. The next six months was quite a culture shock.”

Nonetheless, he shares, “it was a massive sense of accomplishment to get to that point.”

After four more months of weekly visits by the social worker and an appearance before a judge to legalize the adoption, Shaun and Blue were on their own.

Blue reflects: “You go through this kind of strange phase where you feel that you’ve had lots and lots of help and support – and at times it seems a bit intrusive, and you think, ‘Oh well, let’s get on with it!’ But I think the minute all that support drops away, you are quite acutely aware that it’s gone. It’s good as well because you feel like you’ve got your wings and you’re entrusted. It’s quite magical. It’s weird how quickly they feel like they’re yours.”

A year later, with plans in place to relocate to Australia to pursue career opportunities and a more pleasant climate, Shaun and Blue considered adopting a second child. With a move imminent, they would have to work quickly.

Their decision to go through the process again was as much motivated by Joshi as themselves. “You lie in bed at night and have these really odd conversations that you never imagined you’d ever have like, ‘What happens if something happens to both of us, and he is left on his own without a brother or sister?’” Shaun recounts. “We really wanted to adopt a second, but I’m not sure we would have done it as quickly as we did.”

This time around, they had the advantage of knowing the social workers and local government system. Nevertheless, completing the adoption of Dylan was a challenging six-month process.

And, as they sat in traffic on the highway for eight hours in -11 Celsius weather bringing Dylan home, they got a preview that the adventures were just beginning.

When 10-month-old Dylan joined their family, Joshi was two-and-a half years old. “When Dylan came it was a challenge!” shares Shaun. As any couple might learn, no two children are the same, and juggling raising two young children with an international move is not for the faint of heart.

“The first couple of weeks we were like, ’Oh my God, what have we done?’” Blue chuckles as he recollects. “But things just settled and got a bit easier.” They navigated Dylan’s struggles with attachment and gave him time – more time than Joshi had needed – to warm up and begin showing affection.

Now, though, you’d never know an introduction was ever required. Shaun, Blue, Joshi, and Dylan persevered together and now, under one South Australian roof, share the joys of growing together as one close-knit family.

Joshi, now four years old, has become an avid fan of story time. Dylan, now two years old, has become quite the accomplished climber and crawler.

Shaun and Blue have turned their attention to adoption equality in their new home state, where same-sex couples are unable to adopt. Shaun and Blue’s joint parenting rights are only recognized because the process was completed elsewhere.

They hadn’t expected to take on the cause, but, struck by the lack of activism, they decided to act. “We’ve never felt any discrimination on the street; people have been very supportive,” says Shaun, explaining many South Australians they’ve met simply are not aware of the situation. “It’s just an invisible cause,” Blue affirms.

They decided to make it visible. The first step has been to encourage the local community to see change as possible. “When we spoke to people – especially the gay youth here – they almost seemed accepting of [the state of inequality in same-sex adoption rights], and it just became apparent that no one was going to do anything about it.”

To shake up the status quo, Shaun and Blue started a petition on Change.Org to promote governmental resolutions for adoption equality.

Whether they like it or not, Shaun, Blue, and the kids are much like the family they met back in England on that snowy January day: evidence of what is possible and inspiration for those who follow.

Shaun and Blue’s U.K. Adoption Process (2011):

• Initial Process

o Application to local government

o Informational meeting

o Standard in-home assessment by social worker

o Background check and approval

• Preliminary Classes

o Once a week for six weeks

o Learning about the needs of children during adoption and potential adjustment challenges

o Learning about the home-study process

• Home Study

o Apply to continue

o Weekly visits by social worker for four to five months

• Extensive interviewing and interpersonal work, including review of social history and discussion of scenarios to assess suitability

• Medical examination by GP

o Social worker summarizes findings

o Request approval to sit in front of panel

• Panel Review

o Adopters answer further questions

o Panel deliberates eligibility to adopt

o Decision shared (94% of applicants are approved)

• Matching Process (either before or after Panel Review)

o Social worker provides information (but no visual depictions) about a specific child incrementally

o With each new set of information, adopters decide to proceed with match or restart the matching process

o Once match selected, social worker submits written request for panel approval

• Panel Review

o Adopters answer further questions to determine if match is suitable

o If approved, move forward to take over care; if not, back to matching process

• Take Over Care

o Adopters meet and spend time with adoptee

o Care transitions

o Child moves in with the family

• Legalization

o Ten weeks later, adopters can apply to legally adopt

o Meet birth family and sign contract regarding future contact

o Parental rights official granted by the Court

Note: since 2011, the U.K. adoption process has been streamlined further. Improvements include online applications, shorter initial interview period and prep courses, and the ability to match during home study, as Shaun and Blue underwent.

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