James and Alex met in 2002, while Alex was attending bible school. At the time, James was working in a Christian bookstore and, soon after meeting, they fell in love. Although, at that time, the laws did not allow gay couples to marry, James and
Alex knew they were committed to each other and hoped to grow and start a family of their own.
“Pretty much from the get-go we knew we wanted to have children in our home, but we weren’t sure how. We ordered books from Amazon that talked about a lot of different options, including surrogacy,” they explained. However, the couple felt that a lot of the options they read about were not good fits for building their family. In 2003, James saw television personality Rosie O’Donnell, who is also gay, talking about her experience as a foster parent. He was inspired by Rosie’s story and brought up the idea of fostering children to Alex, who was immediately receptive. “I liked the idea of helping children,” said Alex, and he signed the couple up for an informational meeting in Waukesha to learn about becoming foster parents.
As foster parents, James and Alex make a point of being supportive of reunification efforts; however, they always held out a hope to adopt, as well. They credit their workers with helping them to understand that most of the children who become available for adoption through foster care are older, school-aged children or siblings who need to be adopted together, and the couple said they were open to that
possibility throughout their fostering journey. Together, James and Alex fostered several children who experienced successful reunifications. And then they accepted placement of Elliot, who was only a few weeks old.
As Elliot’s case progressed, the efforts to reunify him with his birth family floundered, and James and Alex were asked to consider adoption. Since the couple was not able to legally marry, state statute only allowed one of them to be the legal adoptive parent. James and Alex decided that James would serve as the adoptive parent for Elliot, and that Alex would be the one to serve as the adoptive parent if they were to adopt again.
After their adoption of Elliot, Alex and James continued to accept placements for foster care. After a few years, eight-week-old Belle came to stay with Alex, James, and Elliot. When she became available for adoption, Alex and James welcomed the opportunity to make her a permanent member of their family. This time it would be Alex who would be the legal adoptive parent.
After Belle’s adoption, James and Alex decided to take a break from foster care and focus on their two children. They settled into the routine of family life and even achieved another dream, by opening a salon together in Wales, which they named ElleBelle, after their two children.
Elliot and Belle grew and flourished and James and Alex began to think about adopting once again. However, this time things would be a little different. “I know a lot of couples have qualms about adopting older children, but we thought that caring for a baby would be a bit of stretch in our family, especially with Elliot’s needs,” said James. (Elliot has autism.) “We decided to have an open mind and look to adopt an older child.”
Sure enough, within a few months, the county called about Adam, who was eight years old at the time. The adoption plan with the family currently caring for Adam was falling through and the case worker was hoping James and Alex would be interested in meeting the boy. Adam came for a respite weekend, and James and Alex knew right away he belonged with them. “Adam came to us on Thursday, and by Monday we registered him for school and decided he would stay with us,” said Alex.
After adopting two younger children, Alex and James did have some concerns about adopting an older child. “We knew that Adam came from an abusive background,” James said. “So we were concerned about him possibly acting out around Elliot
and Belle.” However, as James explains, adopting Adam was actually great for Elliot and Belle. “It’s been good for Elliot, because it has kind of helped him come out of his shell and be more interactive, and it also gave Belle someone else to play with. They do butt heads a little bit, but that’s a good thing, it’s normal.” He continued, “I know people have a lot of qualms about adopting older kids, but that kid [Adam],
he just fit in; with our kids, with the neighborhood. It was a different experience than adopting younger children, because I think he kind of knew he wanted a home, he wanted a place to belong . . . the change in his personality since that adoption date was final has been amazing. It’s almost as if he had a fear in the back of his mind that things might not happen, that they might fall through again. So he settled
down a lot after the adoption day.”
There are still a few challenges that James and Alex face in their day-to-day lives, many of which are familiar to many adoptive families. “Some of the questions the kids get asked are challenging. Like, on the bus, a girl asked them ‘are you
adopted? You don’t look like each other,’ and we have to help them come up with answers to that, and tell them that they don’t have to hide that they were adopted.”
James added, “It’s also hard to try and find a balance with birth parents. Belle’s mom has been in prison, and we try to keep in touch through letters and pictures.” James and Alex stress that it’s important to set boundaries in those relationships. “Elliott’s mom sends text messages and we send pictures. She seems happy that he is doing well. You try to keep it simple and make it work.”
Several years after the adoptions of Elliot and Belle, not having both partners legally recognized as adoptive parents of both children is still an obstacle. Elliot was diagnosed with autism, and requires a lot of services to meet his unique needs. Because he is the only legal parent, James is the only one who can authorize those services. After Elliot’s adoption was finalized, the couple petitioned to have Alex gain parental rights, but were denied under the statutes at the time. However, despite these setbacks, James and Alex persevere. They were married in 2014, when same sex marriage first became legal in Wisconsin. The couple shared that, for same sex couples, things are changing and becoming easier. “Adam was the first child that we were able to adopt together, and both our names are on his birth certificate,” they said. Both James and Alex are hoping that, with recent rulings by the United States Supreme Court, new avenues will open up for them both to be legally recognized as adoptive parents for Elliot and Belle.
James and Alex do have some advice for other LGBT couples who are considering fostering and adoption: “Just don’t be afraid,” said Alex. “I think we were Waukesha County’s first gay couple who became foster parents and it worked out.” James added, “Just keep an open mind, there are so many kids here in Wisconsin that need your help. Even if it does not wind up being an adoption, you will know that you helped a kid. Kids need attention and love, to know they are heard and to know they are safe.
“The number one question we get about our kids is ‘where are they are from?’. People think they are from these exotic places, but they are from here in Waukesha. Most people forget that there are children in their neighborhoods who need a home.”
Nearly a dozen children have come to James and Alex through foster care and three have stayed forever. “When your kids are being naughty or sassy and you are dealing with the day to day things, you can kind of get lost in all of that,” Alex said.
“But then you hear from people that you have a good family or that your kids are great. Those are the proudest moments. You think things like ‘you didn’t eat your vegetables,’ or, ‘you’re being disrespectful,’ but then you realize none of that really matters because your kids are safe and they are happy.” For James, the most rewarding thing is, “just seeing them grow, seeing them run around and be happy and free kids.”