Steven and Roger Ham are gay dads. Okay, we’ll admit that's what you might expect to see at the beginning of many pieces on this website. Steven, 46, is the vice president of a company and Roger, 52, works for the Phoenix school district. Nothing particularly unusual there, either.
But what might raise eyebrows is the fact that the two are the fathers of 14, going on 15, children.
They didn't set out to have a family of that size, although both came from large families. (Steven has 13 siblings; Roger has six.) Over a period of time, it just happened.
“We didn’t do it intentionally,” Steven says today. “All we wanted to do was adopt one child and do the best we could.”
Their family’s story involves a Southwestern state coming to term with gay rights, two men devoted to giving children in the foster system a loving home, and determination, coincidence and enduring family ties.
And because it’s a little unconventional, we’re going to tell it in a little bit of an unconventional way. In our first part, we’ll tell how the family came together. In the second, we’ll tell how they make it work.
In 2000, Steven told his husband, flat out, that he wanted to adopt. Roger was somewhat reluctant initially, but ended up along for the ride.
The men, living in Phoenix, Ariz., started taking classes in the foster care system, “not knowing a lot about the prospects.”
Further research didn’t necessarily help. Steven called various area placement agencies, telling them that he and Roger were a gay couple.
“I got so many different responses,” he says today, with “some saying, ‘We don’t serve your kind.’”
But the couple kept attending the classes, something that Steven admits grated on him a bit. After all, most straight couples can become parents without the slightest bit of education.
The two were the only gay couple in their class and wrapped up the preliminaries in April of that year.
“We were told prior to completing our class that there were so many children in the state’s care right now,” Steven says.
But one month passed without a call from the state. Then two months. Then three. The couple had made it into August without being called upon to care for a child. Maybe the world wasn’t ready, they thought.
“We’d kind of given up,” Steven says.
Tired of waiting, the couple finally went on vacation to San Diego, where Steven says, they “met friends and whooped it up.”
On the way back from their trip, the couple got a call that they’d been matched with a 5-year-old Hispanic boy. He didn’t meet the criteria they had laid out for fostering or adopting a child, but at this point they didn’t care.
The two raced to meet him. His name was Michael. And the bond was immediate.
“The instant we met him, we knew he was our kid,” Steven says.
He was the youngest child in a group home, which wasn’t a positive situation. The older children were picking on him. The Hams decided that they shouldn’t delay.
“We basically called CFS the next day and said, ‘We’d take him right now,’” Steven says.
And it was done. The couple that had wanted to take care of a child now had one at home. A happy ending for our story – one that took a few more months than anticipated, but was otherwise nice and neat and orderly.
Or so it seemed.
Once Michael was at home, he kept mentioning Andrew and Elizabeth, his brother and sister. They were 4 years old and 3 years old, respectively. The two had been moving toward an adoptive placement elsewhere.
Andrew and Elizabeth
Steven decided to take action. After all, his new son wanted to see his siblings.
“All he talked about was his brother and sister,” he says. “He was a parent to them.”
He eventually wrangled a visit between the siblings. They had lost their biological mother and all that they knew. It was a powerful moment.
“The kids ran to each other, screaming and crying,” Steven says. And at that moment, he understood: “We knew we had to keep them together.”
And just like that, the family of two adults and one child was in the process of becoming a family of two adults and three children. It took some further discussions with the state, but Steven and Roger were willing to take them all. In just a few months, all of the children had moved into their home.
At this point, Michael was happy, according to Steven.
“But then all he talked about was the twins.”
That’s right, there were two other siblings. They were 18 months old, and according to the state they had severe mental disabilities. Steven didn’t see any way that their still new family could include such a challenge. But he did decide that Michael and his brother and sister should meet their siblings.
After a couple of months, Steven set up a visit for the foster home where the twins were staying. That didn’t sit well with the foster mother.
“We were told they hated men, that they wouldn’t come near us,” Steven says.
But they persevered.
Jackson and Madison
The family finally got to meet the twins at their foster home. With Jackson and Madison, a boy and girl, the bond was immediate.
“Jackson ran up and grabbed my leg,” Steven says. At the time of this article, “He’s 12 and still hasn’t let go.”
Steven and Roger decided they wanted to include the twins in their family too, regardless of their supposed mental disabilities. But that was easier said than done. They clashed with the foster mom for some eight months, and suspected a measure of homophobia on her part.
“We were told they were allergic to milk,” Roger says, and from the tone of his voice a listener can imagine him shaking his head. She could only get the proper milk, the milk they would drink from one special store.
That store was a Costco.
Finally, they got custody of the twins. And despite their “severe mental disabilities,” both are now going to seventh grade and are straight-A students.
Today you would not know they once had been classified like that.
And with that, Steven and Roger had five children, all of whom had come into their home within 11 months.
“We went from zero to five,” Steven says. “We had everyone and we were content.”
But not that content. Steven realized that he still wanted something more.
“For some reason, I wanted a baby,” he says.
The children the couple had adopted had been 5, 4, 3 and 2 years old. Steven hadn’t had the full experience of a new parent, of a raising a child from birth.
The couple put their names on a registry and, soon enough, got the call. They were matched with an infant that had been born addicted to heroin. Steven immediately went into overdrive.
“I went to Walmart, on the phone with a friend of mine,” he says. “I grabbed a few carts and just started buying stuff.”
During the trip, he spent close to $1,600. He wasn’t sure what he was doing, didn’t know what diaper sizes to buy, but pushed ahead nonetheless. After all, he was realizing his dream of bringing back an infant.
“We were told he was never going to go home,” Steven says.
But five and a half months later, the couple got the awful news, the kind of news that anyone dealing with foster-to-adopt fears. He had to go home.
Even though it happened nine years ago, Steven says, “It devastated me, and I still feel a sense of loss for that kid.”
But he didn’t have much time to grieve. Three days later, Marcus came into their lives. He was 15 months old, and despite the pain that Steven and Roger were going through, they embraced him as part of their family.
“I’m a bleeding heart, and Roger won’t admit, but so is he,” Steven laughs.
Shortly after that, they received news about the biological cousin of Michael and his siblings. It meant another child in the house; the seventh, if you care to count.
But Roger and Steven are huge on keeping families together. They met Vanessa, and said, “Sure, sure, no problem.”
Certainly now, with a family totaling nine people, the Hams were done, right? But this story isn’t remotely done yet, so you probably know the answer.
About five months later, the family was outside, putting up Halloween decorations. The kids were helping to hang ghosts from trees when a white car from the state pulled up. A lady with long fingernails opened the door and walked over to Steven.
“I have a delivery for you,” she said.
It was a 9-month-old girl named Ambrose, with a scowl on her face.
“She just looked pissed off,” Steven says.
Just then, the phone rang, with an Arizona official asking if the family would take her in. Steven and Roger said yes.
“We were done,” Steven says.
But the state had other plans for the Hams. The following January, they got another phone call from the state: A child had been found in a trash bin and needed a home.
“Let me call you back,” Steven told them. He admits today that his instinct was to say no. And state workers generally have a list of prospective foster parents they call. It was time to let someone else have their turn, he thought, expecting not to hear from the state again.
“An hour later, they called back,” he remembers. They pressed him, asking, “Steve, do you want to take this child?”
This time he said yes, and soon he met the baby. He was dirty, with big ears; found on 17th Avenue in Phoenix. He was all over the news, and now he was coming home to make Stephen and Roger’s family even bigger.
“My kids are going, ‘Hey, it’s 17th Avenue,’” Stephen says.
They ended up naming him Cooper. He was the ninth of their children.
The family would occasionally get even bigger, Steven noted. “In between all of these, we did have some foster children in and out.”
But then, tragedy struck, or at least it seemed to. A year after placing Ambrose with the Hams, state officials decided that her mother had done enough to have her back. She left the family, and left Steven devastated.
“I didn’t know I could go through that heartbreak again,” he says.
Logan and Isabel
Steven decided that perhaps it was time to move in the opposite direction. He and Roger had done so much for younger kids, perhaps they needed to look out for an older one.
“Let’s put our names on the list for a child about to age out of the foster care system," he told his husband. Roger resisted at first, but was later persuaded to say yes.
But the universe had different plans for the Hams.
They received word from Washington State that there were a brother and sister who needed a home and were about to be separated by officials. The boy was 4 years old, the girl was 11. Their names were Logan and Isabel.
What was most remarkable, though, was that both had a connection to Steven: They were from his hometown.
He flew to Washington to meet them, and then returned home. The family was growing again. And more children would soon be on the way.
Steven explains: “While I was in Washington picking up Logan and Isabel, Cooper’s mom had another baby and left her at the hospital.”
It was a tiny girl, only 4 pounds, who “sat in the palm of our hand.”
And along with Olivia, Ambrose returned to the family after months away.
Her mother told the state, “All she’s doing is asking for daddy and papa and her brothers and sisters,” according to Steven.
And that was that. There were now 12 children in the Ham family, a full dozen. The child who had left was back, and family links had been preserved. Everything was as it should be.
Roger and Steven were done.
Annabelle and Julian
But there was unfinished business. It turns out that Ambrose’s mother had another daughter and a son, both of whom were placed with a foster family in Prescott, Ariz.
Steven and Roger had decided their family was complete and were fine with that. But as they were watching the news one night, it showed those foster parents being arrested on child abuse charges.
Steven called up the state Child Protective Services division and said, “I’m going to come and get them. We’re going to take responsibility for them.”
Next day he picked up Annabelle and Julian.
Steven and Roger now had 14 children.
Shortly afterward, the mother of Ambrose, Julian and Annabelle had another baby. She called the Hams and asked if they would watch her for a weekend. They’re still doing the watching, although not as official adoptive parents.
Now Steven and Roger have a home with eight girls and seven boys.
Read Part II of “Incredible: The 15 Children of the Ham Family.”
Family photo credit: Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic