Change the World

Finding Life: A Documentary About Building Families Through Foster Care

Sometimes, the right story finds the right people, at the right time. “Finding Life,” an upcoming documentary about same-sex foster parents, is just such a project.


Filmmaker Carlton Smith (in photo above), an industry veteran who created commercials, music videos, and TV news, met John Duffy and Frank Sweeney’s family years ago while working at his day job on the Lifetime show "Designing Spaces."

He was especially taken with the juxtaposition of Zachary, a mixed-race child, and a white same-sex couple.

“I want to do a documentary about your story,” he says he told them. “Seeing this child with these two great dads, it just clicked.”

But it didn’t happen right away. Professional commitments and other projects kept Smith busy for several years. He completed a documentary called “The Black Miami.”

“For me, a documentary is taking my love of news and my love of film and combining them into one,” says Smith, who lives in the Fort Lauderdale area.

Looking to create another, he came back to Duffy and his family.

As Smith and Duffy talked through ideas, the two realized they had a compelling premise for a film: There are around 400,000 children in foster care who desperately need homes. And there is a large population of same-sex couples, many newly married, who are interested in starting families of their own.

“We have the option to solve two problems at once,” Duffy says.

He came on board as a producer of the project, at Smith’s invitation. He helped find the featured couples and handled logistical issues.

The two, along with a professional crew, have been working on the film for the last year, and a few months of work remain. They’ve started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for the project.

“Somebody has to tell this story,” Smith says. “We can help fix this.”

The Duffy-Sweeny Family

Following John and Frank

Duffy and Sweeney met while playing softball 8½ years ago. On their first or second date, Duffy says, the two talked about having kids.

But the Fort Lauderdale couple didn’t act right away. Their journey toward parenthood was ultimately prompted by a visit to the coffee shop.  They saw a foster care group’s pamphlet at a Starbucks and decided to volunteer.

But once they visited, they were told: “We don’t really need volunteers. We need foster parents,” Duffy said.

Taking a collective deep breath, the two started taking the state course to become licensed foster parents shortly afterward. They weren’t sure they could go through with it, Duffy said. “Each step of the way was pretty scary.”

But they kept pushing ahead, putting one foot ahead of another.

Soon after completing the course, they were taking care of the newborn baby Zachary. Eighteen months later, he was legally adopted by Frank. (The two married at the beginning of this year, as soon as same-sex marriage came to Florida.)

But they weren’t the only ones to experience rapid change. Florida itself went through huge legal shifts at the same time. When Zachary entered their care, they had to pretend to be just roommates, as state law still barred gay couples from adopting kids.

The law was overturned by an appeals court in October 2010, when their son was 5 months old.

“We got lucky,” Duffy says. “We could get everything squared away on paper.”

And they saw attitudes among their friends in the Florida gay community quickly change. A shift that, it must be said, is one of the inspirations for the documentary.

At first, Duffy says, “It was very shocking to the community.” He and Sweeney would be asked, “What in the world are you doing?”

But as the laws and culture changed, they began to field questions. How exactly did they do it? How much did it cost? Could their friends become parents too?

They ended up shepherding at least 10 of their couple friends through the same process.

“There was the latent need in the gay community -- this latent desire and dream -- to start a family,” Duffy says. “I feel like it turned a light on for a lot of people.”

The Pfeffer-Stifter Family

Blazing Trails in Broward County

David Z. Pfeffer and Ryan P. Stifter are a boisterous couple, full of energy and humor. They ending up being a natural fit for the project.

When he heard about a casting call for the documentary, Pfeffer was immediately interested. “Let’s go, let’s try it,” he told Stifter. Their chemistry on-screen was apparent, and they were picked to be one of the seven couples featured.

“My thought was this would be a great way to tell our story,” Stifter says.

The couple are parents of Nikki, whom they adopted last year after fostering. The adoption was sequential, meaning that first Pfeffer adopted her as a single parent, then Stifter was added as a second parent, within the same legal proceeding.

This was a unique process for Broward County and the foster care system. Initially, the Department of Children and Families wanted to have a conference about the issue. But astute lawyering and a receptive judge won out. If they hadn’t been able to adopt sequentially, Stifter would have had to go through the entire adoption process again, on his own. That would have meant a three-month to six-month delay, more paperwork and more court fees.

Once the process was in place, six more same-sex couples quickly followed, and the couple are proud of their roles as trailblazers. Now that Florida has legally recognized same-sex marriages, though, couples likely won’t require the process.

Nikki was able to be part of the adoption proceedings, too. She came to the hearing, where, Pfeffer told her, “we were getting married as a family.”

“We were making promises to each other that we were going to be a family forever,” he says.

Pfeffer’s advocacy has including keeping a blog about the family’s experiences (at followourfamily.wordpress.com). Additionally, both are forceful advocates for greater participation in the foster care system.

“There are just not enough foster homes for all the children who are in care,” Stifter says. “They have nowhere to go.”

Finding Life

Making  a mission

Ultimately, Smith and Duffy say, they want the documentary to make a positive change.

“The goal is not to attack something or someone,” Duffy says. It’s not about blame. “There are kids there in a system that needs work.”

Too often, according to Duffy, the foster care system isn’t considered by same-sex couples who want to be parents. It can seem too risky and uncertain. Ultimately, he says, such fears shouldn’t drive parents-to-be.

“You’re going to love the kid no matter what,” Duffy says. “Each route has its own pitfalls and advantages.”

For Smith, working on the documentary gave him some clarity about his life, too. He was planning to become a foster parent, along with his partner, Josh, and be part of the documentary. While that’s still the ultimate plan, they’re sitting tight for now.

“After spending the last year with these families, I learned I’m not ready,” Smith says. “You have to be so selfless to take this on.”

He plans on finishing the documentary this year. Some interviews remain, then editing and adding a score. Your help is desperately needed. Once “Finding Life” finds audiences, whether at film festivals or on television, he's hoping to change minds and hearts.

“I want people to watch this and volunteer for a foster agency in their community,” Smith says. “Look at this option first instead of last.”

Finding Life

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Change the World

Miami Tourism Board Releases Vacation Guide for LGBTQ Families

Miami isn't just about circuit parties! The LGBTQ Family-Friendly Miami Vacation Guide showcases many options for queer parents, too.

As gay people, it can be difficult to find vacation spots that are LGBTQ-friendly out of the normal travel "fruit loop" — New York, Mykonos, San Francisco; repeat. For those of us with kids, the Venn diagram of destinations that are both queer and kid friendly can seem practically non-existent.

Fortunately, that's starting to change as the tourism industry realizes that LGBTQ families are a growing segment of vacationers. One city to quickly pick up on this trend is Miami. While the gays have long flocked to Miami for party weekends, the city has also recently noticed an uptick in the number of LGBTQ visitors who are parents. In response, Miami's tourism board release a guide, LGBTQ Family-Friendly Miami Vacation Guide, that includes loads of options for queer parents and their kids. Amid Miami's legendary circuit parties, it turns out, are tons of family friendly things to do — like the Museum of Science, an eco-adventure theme park, and other kid-focused events all year long.

Who knew?

"When I came onboard as Director of LGBTQ Marketing a little over a year ago, I found that our LGBTQ messaging was centered around our annual events," said Dan Rios, who works with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Massive parties like the White Party and Aqua Girl are a central part of the city's LGBTQ offerings, he said, but he was also worried the city was "developing a reputation solely as a party destination. "I want to diversify that message to highlight everything else that Greater Miami has to offer."

Hence the city's family-friendly guide that includes offerings within "art and culture, dining, beaches, fitness," Dan said. "We have unique and amazing family attractions that we had been promoting to our general audiences for decades. I saw this as an opportunity; an opportunity to introduce our attractions to LGBTQ families, and an opportunity to further promote our attractions -- it was a win-win."

Dan said the Bureau is also in the midst of a campaign that will prominently feature LGBTQ parents within different travel destinations throughout the city, which will be featured throughout both LGBTQ and mainstream websites, publications and advertising.

We applaud the effort to reach out to LGBTQ families, and hope more cities follow Miami's lead! Be sure to check out the guide here.

News

Indiana Court Says Couples Using Sperm Donors​ Can Both Be Listed on Birth Certificate — But Ruling Excludes Male Couples

The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case, a major victory for LGBTQ parents — but the Attorney General may appeal to the Supreme Court.

On Friday, a US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling from a lower court that said that both parents in a same-sex relationship are entitled to be listed on the birth certificate — previously, the state of Indiana had required the non-biological parent within a same-sex relationship using assisted reproductive technologies to adopt their child after the birth in order to get her or his name listed on the birth certificate, a lengthy and expensive process not required of straight couples in the same situation.

It's a double standard LGBTQ parents have long been subjected to in many states across the country. So this represent a major win. As reported by CNN, this ruling "takes a lot of weight off" the shoulders of LGBTQ parents, said Karen Celestino-Horseman, a lawyer representing one of the couples in the case. "They've been living as families and wondering if this was going to tear them apart."

The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals deliberated the case, according to CNN, for more than two and a half years, which is one of the longest in the court's history.

However, because all the plaintiffs in the case involved female same-sex couples using sperm donors, the ruling left open the similar question of parenting rights with respect to male couples. Indiana's Attorney General, moreover, may also appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

We'll be following the case closely and be sure to keep you up to date. For more on this recent decision, read CNN's article here.

Personal Essays by Gay Dads

As a Gay Dad, What's the Impact of Letting My Son Perform Drag?

Michael Duncan was excited when his 10-year-old son asked if he could perform in drag for charity — but he also felt fear and anxiety.

As LGBT parents, we have all lived through some sort of trauma in our lives. For many it is the rejection of our family, being bullied, or abuse. We learn to be vigilant of our surroundings and often are very cautious of who we trust. As adults, we start to become watchful of how much we share and we look for "red flags" around every corner.

So, what effect does this have on our children? Does it unintentionally cause us to be more jaded with our interactions involving others? For some the answer may be a resounding "no." But as we look deeper into the situation, we often find that through survival our interactions with others have changed and we may not even realize exactly how much we are projecting on those around us.

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Gay Dad Life

Gong Hei Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year!

As we usher in the year of rat, we asked some of our dads how they honor this special time.

Today we're celebrating, alongside our families, the Chinese New Year! As we usher in the year of rat, we asked some of our dads how they honor this special time, what they do to celebrate, and how they're instilling these traditions in their kids. Here are some of their responses.

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Diary of a Newly Out Gay Dad

A Gay Chiropractor Explains Why He Came Out to His Patients

After Cameron Call, a chiropractor, came out to his family this past year, he knew he had one more step to take — he had to come out to his patients

Fear is an interesting thing. It motivates when it shouldn't, shows at inconvenient times, and is the author of stories that do nothing but hold us back. I would argue though, too, that fear has some good qualities. I believe it helps us to feel. And I think it can be a great teacher as we learn to recognize and face it.

For years fear prevented me from embracing my truth and accepting a large part of who I am. I know I am not alone in that regard. But for so long my fear convinced me that I was. Fear is what kept me from ever telling my parents or anyone growing up that I am gay. Fear mingled with strong religious teachings, embraced at a young age, which led me to believe that I could cure myself of my attractions to the same gender. And fear is a part of what kept me in my marriage to a woman for over ten years.

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Personal Essays by Gay Dads

A Gay Dad Gains Clarity After a Health Scare

A recent health scare helped give Erik Alexander clarity.

Sometimes fear can cripple the mind and hinder ones judgement. Having children of my own, I have come to grips with accepting the things I cannot change and learned to take action when there is no other choice. When it comes to my own personal health, the future and well being of my family gives me all the clarity I need to make the right decision about any kind of health scare.

This episode is dedicated to all the parents out there that are going through or have gone through similar situations.

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Gay Dad Family Stories

This European Couple Became Dads Through a U.K.-Based Surrogacy Program

Janno, from Estonia, and Matthias, from Belgium, were accepted into the "Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy" Program.

Janno Talu, an accountant, and Matthias Nijs, an art gallery director, were born in different parts of Europe. Janno, 39, is from Estonia, and Matthias, 28, is from Belgium. Their paths crossed when the two moved to London, each from their different corners of the European Union.

Janno relocated to London earlier than Matthias, when he was 24, and his main reason for the move was his sexuality. "Although Estonia is considered one of the more progressive countries in Eastern Europe, when it comes to gay rights, it is still decades behind Western society in terms of tolerance," said Janno. "And things are not moving in the right direction." In 2016, same-sex civil union became legal, but the junior party in the current coalition government is seeking to repeal the same-sex partnership bill. "In addition," Janno continued, "they wish to include the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the country's constitution. Even today, there are people in Estonia who liken homosexuality to pedophilia, which is why I decided to start a new life in the UK, where I could finally be myself."

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Fatherhood, the gay way

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