"Hey! I got adopted today! These are my dads, Mark and Andrew!"
Jeremy was 16 years old when he found out his new dads wanted to adopt him.
In late August 2017, husbands Mark and Andrew Mihopulos, 34 and 36 respectively, remember driving out to the east end of Long Island. They knew at the very same moment they were driving, social workers were letting Jeremy know they wanted to adopt him. "We expected Jeremy to be hesitant or feel mixed emotions," shared Mark. "We didn't know how he would feel about having two dads and about having white parents and family, as he is a black young man."
Much to their surprise and relief, Jeremy was overjoyed and excited about inviting two new dads into his life and beginning a new life with them. After arriving, the three enjoyed lunch on a picnic table outside in the sun, and Jeremy overflowed with questions and ideas about the life they would build together. He literally shouted with joy to anyone who walked by, "I got adopted today!" Mark and Andrew were beyond thrilled to start their new chapter as a family.
Mark and Andrew always wanted to be dads but knew having a baby did not fit their lifestyle. They both had to work full time, and they were reluctant to have their baby raised in a daycare as their parents and families were unable to help with childcare. After engaging in a few webinars about domestic and international adoption, they called Chemene Vizzi, of Long Island adoptive Families Support Group, to learn more about the different adoption paths.
"Chemene, with excitement, shared with us a different pathway to parenthood: older-child adoption of legally freed youth through You Gotta Believe, an adoption agency that focuses on older children and teenagers in need of families," remembered Mark. "Instantly upon learning about nontraditional foster-adoption, we looked at each other and knew that this was an option to explore."
Right away, they called the agency and signed up for their next orientation.
"We attended the orientation, run by a passionate, fun duo – a mother who adopted two older children and a young man who identified as gay and who had aged out of the foster care system himself," recalled Mark. "With authentic experience, they shared the realities of children in care and the strategies for understanding and supporting young people with trauma." By the end of the class, they knew that this pathway to fatherhood fit their reasons for wanting to parent: to give a young person the support and love they need. "It was if it was meant to be."
In March 2017, they began their MAPP classes with You Gotta Believe and completed them in early June of the same year. That month, they also did their home study and signed a month later. In July, they also learned for the first time about Jeremy. "We heard about him from a Wendy's Wonderful Kids representative who worked with You Gotta Believe," shared Andrew. "She told us a little about him and I remember her emphasizing that he was soft-spoken and deeply thoughtful; we were advised to listen closely to him, as he would share amazing thoughts and perspectives."
The dads-to-be first interaction with Jeremy was an informal meeting at You Gotta Believe's annual picnic and pool party. (This was prior to the formal sharing conference with the county, where Mark and Andrew would learn details about Jeremy's story.)
"Jeremy, 16 years old at the time, arrived at the pool pavilion with his backpack held tight and his game face on; at first, he seemed highly guarded," remembered Mark. They managed to engage with him over lunch and organically connected as Jeremy let his walls down. "I remember laughing with him about our dogs, as he shared about a pet he has once had and I told him about our French Bulldog, Tzatziki."
At the time, Jeremy didn't know that the husbands were exploring adopting him, because if they did not match, he would not have to experience rejection or loss. However, Andrew and Mark remember feeling that this young man felt like family.
A month later, they met with the county, listened to their limited information about Jeremy and his history, searched through a literal shopping cart of disorganized paperwork about him. Ultimately, they decided to commit to being Jeremy's dads. The pool party experience helped them contextualize a lot of the information and misinformation presented to them. "Jeremy was not the person reflected in his file," said Mark, "as reports represented him in survival mode and highlighted his challenges, rather than his strengths.
In August 2017, the dads told Jeremy and were thrilled by his response and enthusiasm. Next came the transition period and it proved to be more challenging than any of them imagined.
"The plan was to visit Jeremy over the next few weeks or months, starting near where he lived and gradually bringing him to our home and community, and moving from day visits to weekend visits," explained Andrew. This proved to be not so straightforward. They encountered difficulties with a particular social worker who thought that Jeremy had to earn points on a strict behavior system to earn time with his dads. "This may have been motivated by their feelings about transracial adoption and/or gay men adopting a child, especially because the organization was religious in its mission."
You Gotta Believe helped them in attempting to educate the social worker in the idea that nobody has to earn their family. When this particular social worker left, things became easier for the new family, and his new social worker was much more understanding and supportive of Jeremy building a relationship with Mark and Andrew.
They moved from only hour-long visits in a crowded room with other families, to home visits and exploring the neighborhood of Jeremy's soon-to-be new home. "During this time, he thoroughly enjoyed staying home because, in his words, 'it was quiet,'" said Mark. "It had been a long time since Jeremy had been alone and calm and safe and able to appreciate quiet. He began feeling at home on our weekends together, but he would physically tense up on the rides back from our visits. Returning him to a place where he felt unsafe and unhappy was extremely difficult for us all, but we focused on the end goal of being a family."
In December 2017, on the last day of being 16, Jeremy moved in with his dads. On his 17th birthday, he woke up at home and celebrated with a huge party with family, friends and his team of social workers from You Gotta Believe. He was surrounded by love, support and a home.
Over the next year and a half, Jeremy has grown to balance his families, visiting his biological family every few months and understanding his place in Mark and Andrew's family. He sleeps with Tzatziki and takes care of him, learning responsibility and how to have healthy relationships. "Jeremy's worldview has been widened through his getting to know our friends and his new family, including many cousins and grandparents," said Andrew. "He strives to attend college in a year, when he finishes high school." His dad have confidence that he will exceed expectation and statistics about youth in care. They hope to adopt Jeremy, if he chooses that for himself, when he turns 21.
"We always heard that fatherhood would change everything for us, but we did not fully understand how true this can be," said Mark. "Since morally adopting Jeremy, Andrew and I have become more self-aware and have begun to take better care of ourselves and each other. Together, we have lost 125 lbs by eating healthy foods and working out daily." The dads have grown especially close with the members of Long Island Adoptive Families Support Group, helping lead meetings and develop topics based on their local adoption/foster care needs and their own experiences as parents. Most significantly for Mark, being Jeremy's father helped me to develop a passion for parenting and supporting families. Recently, he changed his career from teaching elementary school to being the LGBT Network's LGBT Families Program Coordinator. "In this role, I get to teach LGBT people about becoming parents, forming families and parenting with best practices."
"Jeremy helped me to understand the good, the bad and the real sides of adoption and foster care and helped me feel empowered to share what I have learned with my community. We hope that our family and our story can help inspire others!"