John Kelly and Terrance Burton began parenthood with a custody battle — against the state of New York.
When they took in John's nephew, Matthew, the couple found themselves caught in the middle of a contentious battle between the states of New York and New Jersey about how interstate adoption should occur. “It was like two countries fighting a war," John says. “We were going out to [Long Island] constantly for court hearings."
They hadn't planned to become dads. But when they learned Matthew was suffering from severe neglect, they knew they needed to step up. “We had to get him out of a bad situation," he says.
At six years old, Matthew only recognized ten letters of the alphabet. “[He had] missed 120-something days of public school and no one notified the police," Terrance says. They immediately began seeking treatment for him.
The couple had moved from Staten Island into a posh New Jersey townhouse just a year prior — a plan that didn't involve having kids.
Months passed with little progress on the adoption, but John and Terrance persisted.
“The judges really were impressed that we would always show up. So, they started kind of giving us hints as to what we needed to do to get custody of Matthew," John says. “They told us the best thing we could do was to become foster parents."
Matthew was living with the couple despite the bureaucratic limbo — a situation that was essentially illegal. The two finally grew tired of battling to legitimize foster parent status for the child living in their home.
“We finally got fed up and we went for custody," John says. That introduced the new complication of getting two men's names on the adoption application. And though the two now owned a larger home together to accommodate their family, they had had to put their names on the deed as tenants in common, as if they were strangers.
Over a year later, Matthew was finally on track for adoption, but not before having to move back to New York in order to formally be placed in John and Terrance's care. “It's just a lot of politics," Terrance says.
Through this grueling process, Terrance and John became extremely passionate about the situation for foster kids in the two adjoined states that seemed to be at war, both against one another and against the wellbeing of the children. They saw that rather than health and safety being the priority in the foster care system, it used returning kids to their biological parents as their primary metric for success, even at a cost.
“At some point, I felt for myself that I was being pulled in this direction. I felt like this was where I needed to be," Terrance says. Though the state did not yet extend domestic partnership benefits to gay couples, the New York transit system, where John is a bus driver, became the one of the first public institutions in the state to extend benefits to domestic parters of their employees.
“Once that happened, I took the leap and left my job," Terrance says. The couple began taking in foster children.
To the right: John Kelly (with glasses) and Terrance Burton with grandma Sandra Burton; to the left, from back to front: their children Matthew, 20; Thomas, 16; Ricky, 15; Kate, 14; Alex, 9; and Jeremiah, 7. (Their son Daniel, 20, is not present; he is visible in the photo on the kitchen island.)
“We did the training of course to get medically fragile children," he says. “We got ourselves as much training and licensing as we could so we could open our home to all kinds of children."
Another foster child, Jeremiah (whom they have since adopted as their sixth child), was merely 8 months old and had already been with four other foster families.
“He happened to be in a home where the mom had five foster babies. The [case worker] showed up and the mom was upstairs drunk and the kids were just sitting in high chairs," Terrance says. “When we took him in, they were saying he might not walk because he was 8 months old and not doing basic things like roll over."
The deeper they immersed themselves in the world of foster care, the more concerned they became with the abuse children continued to suffer even after leaving their abusive home situations. Each child was provided counseling. Years ago, they recall, state-assigned counselors came into the home regularly, but these services have waned — and the counseling provided benefits far beyond the child's recovery.
“The reason therapy is so important is because as a foster parent you have no say in the court," says Terrance. One of their foster children, a young girl, had been extremely guarded at first. In time, she began to share with Terrance that her father, who still had frequent visits with her, had sexually abused and exploited her. “When she started getting comfortable and disclosing that information to myself, it was all hearsay and it wasn't admissible in court," he says. The couple reported the issue to the social worker, who fortunately took action immediately.
Finally, three months later, the girl told her counselor about the abuse. “If they go to a therapist and it's noted in a therapist's notes, its admissable in court as evidence," Terrance says. Ultimately, the courts discovered that the man who had abused the child was not her father at all.
Daniel and Thomas, now 20 and 16 years old, had been abused in foster care. “They would come and talk about being abused in a foster home," Terrance recalled. In time, they pieced together that they'd been in the same home at different times, abused by the same foster parents.
Though seven kids — Matthew, Daniel, Thomas, Ricky (15), Kate (14) and Alex (9) are now John and Terrace's adopted children, many more kids have come in and out of their home.
Many have returned to parents who are grateful for the care their children received while living with John and Terrance. Still, the couple knows many did not return to healthy homes.
“We've had kids come and go and you just know they're not going back to a good situation," Terrance says. “We have a section in our house, on one side of our fireplace, that's just pictures of children who have left our house."
John and Terrance have learned the ropes of the foster care system over the past 15 years, and they are confident that the system is improving.
“As time has gone on and the years have gone on and things move forward slowly, I feel like things have changed in Child Services of New Jersey," Terrance says.
Lots has changed since the two began caring for foster kids. Daniel is now in the Navy, and his friends still come around the house to say hello. “He's not even here and they're coming by to check on us," Terrance says. “Just seeing how accepting it is from my generation to their generation, it's night and day."