In order to help children, Craig Peterson of Indianapolis, Indiana, intended to adopt as a single parent. But his path to parenthood took a surprising turn that has led him to become a strong advocate for other LGBT foster and adoptive parents and their children. Contributing Huffington Post Queer Voices writer Danielle Lescure shares Craig’s story in this RaiseAChild Huffington Post Queer Voices “Let Love Define Family®” series installment.
When Craig Peterson, now 57, became the first openly gay man in Indiana to adopt children through foster care in 1998, he knew there would be scrutiny and he was prepared. But he could never have imagined the journey he was about to embark on, the headlines he’d make, and the doors he would open for others. And most importantly, the role he would take on as an advocate of greater understanding and support for foster care children who may arrive into their adoptive homes with special needs and carry the weight of a traumatic past.
“It’s a journey,” Craig said. “That’s oftentimes the word that I use. I don’t know exactly what the path is gonna be and you’ve gotta be prepared for when something comes up. You just never know.”
Growing up in Montana, Craig’s parents taught him to see beyond what others looked like and to respect and appreciate their differences.
“That was a real part of my fabric growing up,” he said. “There was never any room for trash talk in our house, so I learned a lot of empathy.”
This foundation of compassion and openness has helped him maneuver the ever-evolving learning curve that comes with being the adoptive father of six children; two sibling sets with mental health issues. His four youngest children were all exposed to alcohol in utero. His two oldest sons were diagnosed with significant PTSD because of their years of living with severe abuse with their birth family.
“Many in the community didn’t understand my children’s challenges because their disability was invisible,” Craig shared. “More than a few people blamed me for the children’s ongoing challenges, even more so when people held bias toward gay fathers. School could be an unwelcoming place, because some teachers and some students didn’t understand the past trauma my kids experienced. Being adopted didn’t make their past trauma go away. It is recycled through adolescence and continues to recycle today.”
Along the way, Craig has worked hard to help his children come into their own and continually educate others on the need for awareness around raising, teaching, and helping children and families who face similar struggles.
“You have to be prepared to parent in very different ways than you were probably raised. Traditional parenting doesn’t work with my kids because of their history of trauma,” he said.
But his very first challenge was simply to bring them home. Craig’s path toward becoming a father began when he transferred to Indianapolis for work and became an active volunteer.
“I had done a lot of work with youth in the inner city of Indianapolis,” Craig admitted. “I saw that there were a lot of needs and so I said, ‘Well maybe I need to have kids that are my own rather than kids I send back to their families.’ People just kind of laughed at me and said, ‘You think they’re gonna let a gay man adopt children?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’”
Ignoring the naysayers, he began his training classes in early ’98.
“There were twelve or thirteen married couples, there was one single woman, and there was me,” he continued. “I kind of stuck out like a sore thumb. But I could see that a lot of other people were on the fence. They weren’t sure if they wanted to adopt from foster care because they wanted an infant and infants are really hard to get when you go through the foster care system. However, I was a lot less picky. The course included a lot of assignments we had to get done in order to move on to a home study. I was the first one ready to do that.”
The adoption specialist working with Craig noticed his dedication and determination asked how willing he would be to take a sibling group, children of another race, or children with special needs.
“I did a lot of soul searching on that and then I came back and told her that I was ready and willing to do that. From that point on, I just tried to learn as much as I could,” he said.
A sibling group of four African-American children was available, three boys and a girl. The case manager wanted to keep them together.
“When all was said and done, after all the paperwork and interviews, no one who went through the process was willing to take all four but me,” he recalled. “When I learned that after the fact, I was just blown away. That just underscores how difficult it is to place certain groups of kids.”
However, just as the path seemed clear, roadblocks appeared. Upon learning of her impending adoption, the young girl’s foster family at the time rejected her placement with a gay man and announced they would be adopting her instead. And they took their story to the press. Craig suddenly found himself in the spotlight and under intense scrutiny from the county and the newspapers. Letters to the editor insisted there were other, heterosexual, couples willing to take the children.
“Where were these people during the whole adoption process?” he wondered.
To protect the legal proceedings of the adoption and the privacy of the three boys still on pre-adoption placement, he was unable to share his side of the story.
Eight months after his sons arrived, news broke that the father of his daughter’s foster family, and now adoptive family, who had fought her placement with Craig, had been molesting her for close to three years. He was jailed, but the daughter remained with the family. It would be another two years before a surprise phone call, right after Thanksgiving in 2000, offered the opportunity to reunite the family. The call was from her adoptive mother.
“Do you still want the boys’ sister?” she asked.
He agreed without hesitation.
She would only meet him at a McDonald’s parking lot off the interstate. Craig brought a supportive neighbor along as a witness. It was the first time he met his daughter and finally got to bring her home to her brothers. Quickly contacting the attorney who had handled his son’s placement, they were able to persuade the adoptive mother to voluntarily give up her rights. Craig finalized the adoption four months later.
“It’s been an up and down 16 years ever since, just trying to undo the damage that was done to my daughter who is now 26,” he said.
With all the siblings now together, Craig was finally able to break his silence.
“Never had I been this huge gay activist,” Craig confessed. “But once my adoption was finalized, I was on the phone the next day with the media saying, ‘Now I can talk to you.’”
The response to his family’s story in the newspapers, including a two-day spread in the Indianapolis Star, was overwhelmingly positive.
“People could finally see, this was just a family,” Craig said. “There wasn’t anything to hide here.”
Craig would go on to meet several gay men who would tell him that because of his story they too chose to adopt through the foster care system.
“And no one even raised an eyebrow,” he said.
“I knew when all this controversy started that I didn’t just have to be a good parent; I had to be really good,” he continued. “So no one anywhere could say, ‘Oh, well look at that. That’s why they shouldn’t give kids to gay men.’ I took that responsibility very seriously.”
After some time, Craig called a family meeting. Knowing there were still so many other children in need, everyone agreed to open their home once more. In late 2001, two older sibling boys, aged 9 and 10, became the newest members of the Peterson household.
Though both boys were very intelligent and high-functioning, they were also very damaged by the abuse they had suffered early on in their lives. Because of serious behavioral issues resulting from their past trauma, they rarely lasted long in foster homes and had been moved 30 times in two and a half years. But the first time Craig met with them and brought a photo album of his family, Alex told him, “Oh, you’ve done this before. You’re not gonna give us back.”
Nor has Craig ever given up on them. But he doesn’t hide the fact that the road has been rocky. That the survival mechanisms they learned growing up in their birth family, like lying and stealing, carried over into their new home. Craig has found sharing these truths via his blog and in online communities has offered adoptive parents and families the support they need when facing equally demanding circumstances.
“No one sat down with me and said, ‘Okay, there’s got to be some real specific ways to parent these two when they come to your home so then you set them up for success,’” he said. “Here I was thinking these two boys who have had such a past would just blossom in a good home. That was a little bit too Pollyanna. But that’s what most people believe. But my kids have all this baggage and layers of trauma.”
One powerful way Craig has been to able make inroads in educating others and advocating for his children has been to compare what his daughter and two sons have been through to soldiers returning from war.
“It’s like the army sergeant who comes back from war and has PTSD and just so many triggers. When someone starts yelling at them, you can imagine what that does? They know something bad is about to happen and ‘I have to run.’”
At the beginning of each school year, Craig was proactive, meeting with as many teachers as possible.
“I say, ‘My son has PTSD. He wasn’t in a military battle but he was in the battle for his life every day for eight years and his brain has now become wired differently than someone who didn’t live in that. These are some of the triggers he has.’ When we had teachers who got it and were supportive, whether it was Valentine’s Day or Christmas, we made sure those teachers got gifts! I made sure my kids wrote notes and said what it meant to be in their classroom. I wanted them to know, ‘You make my life easier and I really value what it is that you’re doing.’”
Craig’s firsthand knowledge and experience led to more opportunities to educate the educators.
“It was interesting that along the way I got asked to team teach a course for educators at the University of Indianapolis,” Craig said. That went so well for one semester they asked, ‘Why don’t you just teach the course yourself?’ So, for about seven years, I was an adjunct faculty member teaching those undergraduates who were going to be teachers as well as current teachers who were working on their master’s degrees. I was trying to teach them how to work with families. First, how to work with families but then once you understand working with families then you get into that whole trauma piece. It was amazing the number of teachers who maybe had been working 10 years and now were working on their master’s degree that they said, ‘I’ve never heard this before.’”
He is encouraged by steps taken in places like Oregon, which recently passed a landmark education bill to fund trauma-informed approaches in schools.
“We have lots of kids coming to public schools who have a past,” Craig stated. “We can educate them better if we invest in understanding them, rather than trying to dismiss their past and overlook it. It’s hard to educate a child when there are so many other things that get in the way of them paying attention.”
Craig’s hope in telling his story is to cultivate greater openness and transparency within the fostering and adoption community when dealing with trauma. He hopes to better serve the children and their families who love them and want to help them thrive. That adoption is much more than simply saving a child.
“If you go into adopting with that mentality then you’re going to be doing everything that you know rather than meeting the needs of the child,” he said. “We need this paradigm shift in all these different areas, whether it’s schools or it’s churches or just neighborhoods so people can be supportive of families that adopt. If we don’t talk about these things, nothing’s ever gonna get better.”
While many families rarely have contact with a child’s birth family, Craig would like to see prospective adoptive parents to be prepared to be open and honest with their children about their past.
“Every child who is adopted has a history and a family that came before you,” said Craig. “My mindset is that when you adopt, when you go through your first training, you need to tell people that if you are successful in adopting, your child will always have two families. The family that gave them birth and you. And nothing you can do can ever change that. And so it’s best from day one to embrace that and not feel like it’s a competition because it doesn’t have to be a competition. That connection must be respected.”
Craig also calls for additional aid from and changes in workplace policies that would benefit and broaden the pool of adoptive families.
“When my daughter arrived, at that point then I was fundraising for a non-profit organization that worked with vulnerable children,” Craig remembered. “You would think that of all the groups, this group would have an employee policy that was family-friendly. I went in to ask if I could have a week off with pay to transition my daughter when she moved in. They said, ‘That’s not the policy.’ So, if I had given birth to this child I could have gotten five days off, paid. But because she was adopted, my family got nothing. I just remember looking at the CEO and saying, ‘Don’t you see where we’re talking out of both sides or our mouth here?’ At least, they were very accommodating and for those two weeks, my daughter came to work with me every day. The staff helped me keep her busy. To me, that example just underscores the need for more family flexibility.”
Having job flexibility was especially crucial as a single parent of multiple children with special needs and led Craig to pursue self-employment.
“It becomes all-encompassing that when sometimes if you have a child with special needs that you might have 8-10 medical appointments a month. It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent in my car driving the kids around for appointments. It’s like whenever I go somewhere, what can I take with me so while I’m waiting I can get something done.”
As with any family, it’s impossible to predict what will happen. But Craig has made certain his children know he’s in this for the long haul.
“I have found more patience in myself than I ever thought possible,” Craig realized. “Sometimes you just need to step back and say, ‘Let’s let things unfold and not react.’ I have learned to be a lot more open to all sorts of people. I probably do a whole lot more listening today.”
Being a parent is a lifetime commitment, and a responsibility that carries added significance with special needs children. Though Craig’s three youngest sons, now 21, 22, and 23, know they are welcome to live with him as long as they like, the question does arise of what might happen if he dies.
“I have addressed that question number of times,” states Craig. “I start by reminding my sons that I will be around for a long time. I tell them that my parents are in their 80s and several grandparents almost hit 100. If the issue is pushed further, I remind them that their aunt and uncle will help out. Lastly, I emphasize the importance of learning more independent learning skills that will be beneficial in the future.”
Despite the challenges, Craig is proud of how much they have overcome as a family and how his children continue to make positive forward strides. His youngest son has a job that is mostly full-time and his brothers are actively involved in the Special Olympics. In fact, one of his sons is one of the most prominent Special Olympians in the country, and was invited to President Obama’s final state dinner last October.
“All six of my kids are very giving individuals,” Craig states proudly. “I believe they’ve seen that in me and picked up on that. They know it’s important to help other people. It is my challenge to teach my children that you don’t give all your kindness out in the first ten minutes that you meet somebody because they just may rob you blind. But it’s important to have a good heart and to be open to people and then to take it from there.”