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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News

World's First Sperm Bank Opens for HIV Positive Donors

Sperm Positive, started by three non-profits in New Zealand, hopes to end stigma surrounding HIV and parenthood

"Our donors have so much to give," say the promotional materials of a new sperm bank. "But they can't give you HIV."

The new sperm bank, Sperm Positive, launched on World Aids Day this year by three non-profits as a way to fight stigma surrounding HIV and parenthood. For years, scientists have known that those living with an undetectable level of HIV in their blood thanks to antiretroviral treatments can't transmit the virus through sex or childbirth. Yet discrimination and stigma persists.

The sperm bank exists online only, but will connect donors and those seeking donations with fertility banks once a connection is made on their site. Sperm Positive was started by three New Zealand non-profits — Body Positive, the New Zealand Aids Foundation and Positive Women Inc. — who hope the project will help disseminate science-backed education and information about HIV and parenthood.

Already, three HIV positive men have signed up to serve as donors, including Damien Rule-Neal who spoke to the NZ Herald about his reasons for getting involved in the project. "I want people to know life doesn't stop after being diagnosed with HIV and that it is safe to have children if you're on treatment," he told the Herald. "I've experienced a lot of stigma living with HIV, both at work and in my personal life that has come from people being misinformed about the virus."

We applaud the effort all around! To read more about our own efforts to end the stigma surround HIV and parenthood, check out our recent round-up of family profiles, resources, and expert advice that celebrate the experience of gay dads living with HIV here.

Change the World

'Homosexuality is Wrong' Utah Teacher Tells Boy Who Gave Thanks for His Two Adoptive Dads

The substitute teacher went on to say two men living together is "sinful." She was fired shortly after.

To anyone with a heart, the moment should have done nothing more than bring a tear to the eye. Last week, just before the Thanksgiving break, a substitute teacher in a fifth grade class in Cedar Hills, Utah — just south of Salt Lake City — asked her students to name something they were thankful for this holiday season.

"I'm thankful for finally being adopted by my two dads," said Daniel, one of the boys, when it was his turn.

Rather than grab a tissue to dab her eyes, or ask the classroom to join her in a hearty round of applause to celebrate Daniel finding his forever family, the teacher took it upon herself to impart her personal religious beliefs onto the young boy. "Homosexuality is wrong," the teacher said in front of the class, adding that it was "sinful" for two men to live together.

The teacher, fortunately, was fired from Kelly Services, the substitute staffing company that employed her, quickly after the incident, but the moment is nonetheless receiving widespread attention in the press — no doubt in part because one of the boy's dads, Louis van Amstel of "Dancing With the Stars," posted a video clip to his 76,000 Twitter followers with the title: "Our child was bullied."

"It shouldn't matter if you're gay, straight, bisexual, black and white," he said to the New York Times in a follow up interview. "If you're adopting a child and if that child goes to a public school, that teacher should not share her opinion about what she thinks we do in our private life."

Louis also revealed that the moment may not have come to light were it not for three of his son's classmates, who told the principal about the teacher's bigoted comments. His son, Daniel, didn't want to report the incident for fear of getting the teacher into trouble.

Louis expressed thanks that the staffing company responded as quickly as it did following the incident — and also stressed that his neighbors and community have rallied behind he and his family in the days afterward, offering support. He wanted to dispel stereotypes that Utah, because of its social conservatism and religiosity, was somehow inherently prejudiced.

"It doesn't mean that all of Utah is now bad," he told the Times. "This is one person."

It's also true that this type of prejudice is in no way limited to so-called red states, and incidents like these happen daily. LGBTQ parents and our children are subjected to homophobic and transphobic comments in schools, hospitals, stores, airlines and elsewhere as we simply go about living our lives. These moments so often fly under the radar — many classmates don't have the courage, as they fortunately did in this case, to report wrongdoing. Some administrators are far less responsive than they were here — and most of us don't have 76,000 Twitter followers to help make these moments of homophobia a national story.

All that aside, let's also get back to what should have been nothing more than a heartwarming moment — Daniel, a fifth grade boy, giving thanks to finally being legally adopted into a loving family.

Change the World

9 Stories That Celebrate the Experience of Gay Fathers Living with HIV

This World AIDS Day, we dug into our archives to find 9 stories that bring awareness to and celebrate the experience of gay dads living with HIV

December 1st is World AIDS Day — a day to unite in our collective fight to end the epidemic, remember those we've lost, and bring much needed attention and money to support those who continue to live with HIV and AIDS. For us at Gays With Kids, it's also a time to lift up and celebrate the experiences of fathers, so many of who never thought they'd see the day where they would be able to start families.

Towards that end, we've rounded up nine stories, family features and articles from our archives that celebrate the experience of gay fathers living with HIV — the struggles, triumphs and everything in between.

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Gay Dad Life

Broadway Performer's Surrogacy Journey Briefly Sidetracked — for One Very 'Wicked' Reason

"Broadway Husbands" Stephen and Bret explain the exciting reasons they had to hit pause on their surrogacy journey — but don't worry, they're back on track!

In the latest video of the Broadway Husbands sharing their path to fatherhood, Stephen and Bret explain their hiatus for the past 4 months. The couple have big news to share including a relocation, a job announcement, and the fact that they're getting ready to restart their journey (which they had to take a brief pause from since September).

Watch their video to find out their latest news.

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Gay Dad Family Stories

These Gay Dads Lost Everything After Hurricane Dorian — Except Hope

The couple, who live in "Hope Town" in the Bahamas, lost everything after suffering a direct hit from Hurricane Dorian this past summer.

Max Bethel-Jones, 52, had traveled to more than 120 countries over the last 30 years working with the United Nations, but had never been to the Bahamas — in 2015, he decided to apply for a private teaching job as a special needs teacher in Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama.

Just weeks after his arrival, he'd get a whole lot more than another pin in his map of visited countries when he attended a social event at Freeport Rugby. "My object was to ogle the local male talent but several women had other ideas," he said. One woman was particularly insistent, he said, but after a couple of drinks she got the hint that he batted for the other rugby team. "She promptly told me there was someone I should meet."

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News

Gay Dads Told One Must Identify as 'Mother' to Enroll in Daycare

The Israeli gay dads told one must identify as mother — like a "normal couple" — in order to receive financial assistance for daycare.

Israeli dads Guy Sadak Shoham and Chai Aviv Shoham were trying to enroll their two-year-old twins in daycare when they were told by a government official that one would need to identify as the "mother" in order to be cleared.

According to Out Magazine, the couple was attempting to apply for financial aid to help pay for the costs of preschool when a government bureaucrat called them to discuss their eligibility.

"I understand that you are both fathers and understand that you both run a shared household, but there is always the one who is more dominant, who is more the mother," the government said, according to an interview on the Israel site Ynet (translated by Out Magazine). "I am just asking for a written statement in your hand which of you is the mother. From the point of view of the work, which works less than the father. Like a normal couple."

The official, apparently, said she was beholden to rules set for in the Ministry of Economy.

"It is mostly sad and a little disturbing," one of the dads told Ynet. "These are concepts that we consider the past. We do not necessarily come up with allegations against this representative, she is ultimately subject to the guidelines and as she said, they are the state. It is also sad that the state's definition of a mother is someone who works less and is at home with the children, and that we must choose which of us meets that definition."

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, fortunately, issued an apology following the incident, and promised to update its protocols. "We will emphasize that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs practices explicitly treat all types of families and grant equal rights to all," the ministry wrote in a statement, an apology that was called "insufficient" by Ohad Hizki, the director-general of the National LGBT Task Force.

"The Ministry of Labor and Welfare must sharpen its procedures immediately to prevent recurrence of cases of this kind, as other public organizations have been able to do," he said.

Read more about this story on Out Magazine.

Gay Dad Life

Top 10 Reasons You Should Date a Gay Dad

Jay Turner lays out the top 10 reasons you should consider dating a single gay dad

We're gay dads. Many of us were married to women, and for various reasons we eventually found ourselves single and looking for companionship from another man. Life is a little more complicated for us because we have kids. But that shouldn't deter you from seeking a relationship with a gay dad. In fact, there are many reasons why we make better partners than men without children. We are generally more mature, responsible, and emotionally available. We are also better communicators.

Here are the top ten reasons why you should date a gay dad:

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Fatherhood, the gay way

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