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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”