Project Jigsaw: A family for everyone

Project Jigsaw, LGBT families, adoption, foster care, Arizong
Kevin and David Patterson had to overcome many hurdles to adopt their daughters Cayden (9) and Cayla (6). Photo by Rick D’Elia.

This story begins with two people who met through mutual friends at work. They found it comfortable to be together. A friendship blossomed.

One night, they decided to go bowling. They didn’t think of it as “a thing”—they thought it was just hanging out as friends. It was fun—playful competition, easy conversation. They discovered how much they, and their families, had in common.

A deeper relationship grew. And when one of them suffered a profound loss—a mother’s untimely death—the other moved in. Two people who started as friends, then lovers, became a family.

If you didn’t know they are both men, the love story would end here. “Happily ever after” would begin. But “happily ever after” often implies marriage and children. For most of us, that kind of ending doesn’t require a fight.

The decision to adopt

Kevin Patterson and David Patterson, of Phoenix, were together six years before they started thinking seriously about starting a family. They both grew up with lots of family gatherings and “those big Christmases,” Kevin says, “so that’s really important to us.”

At some point, Kevin recalls, they had to decide: “Do we want to be just the really fun uncles to all these kids? Do we just enjoy this nice opportunity to spoil them and send them home? Or do we want that permanently for our house?”

A trip to Disneyland proved catalytic. They had a wonderful time, but couldn’t help noticing the happy families all around them. “That was ‘the moment,’ ” Kevin says. They made themselves a promise: The next time they went to Disneyland, it would be as parents.

Like many couples unable to bring a child into the world biologically, the Pattersons decided to explore adoption. They didn’t know much about the process. “We didn’t even know if we could adopt,” Kevin says.

They started by looking into international adoption, but those adoptions can take years, and often require numerous trips abroad. It seemed too complicated—and too expensive.

They considered private adoption, but decided that path was too risky. “Ideally, you’re supporting the mother in the hopes that she follows through on her commitment to provide a child to you,” Kevin says. “And yet, how can you fault her when she falls in love with her baby and can’t?”

Then came the epiphany: What if they didn’t adopt a baby? By skipping the diaper stage, adopting older children instead, “We would be a family of adventure—we’d be able to take them with us everywhere we go.”

That decision solidified when they learned how many Arizona children are living in the care of the state—in foster homes, group homes and even in state office buildings when group homes reach capacity and foster families are not available. Back then, the number was about 16,000. It’s now more than 19,000.

“We grew up here; this is our community,” David says. “We’re very proud to live in Arizona, in Phoenix. The thought of bringing more kids into the state when so many are in need seemed really counterproductive.”

Unexpected barriers

On paper, you couldn’t find two people more qualified to raise a child. Both have advanced degrees in fields that give them a deep understanding of human behavior. They were both employed (at that time, by Apollo Education Group), so their household was supported by two professional salaries. They were young, healthy and yearning to build a family. They had plenty of family support nearby.

“We were amped up to get started,” Kevin says. “We went to DCS [Arizona’s Department of Child Safety] and asked, ‘Given our situation, how do we do this?’”

DCS provided a list of licensing agencies that contract with the state to support and train prospective foster and adoptive families. The couple started by contacting agencies closest to their home.

The first phone call was an eye-opener. Kevin explained that his family was looking to adopt a child. He patiently answered questions, eventually reaching this one: “What is the adoptive mother’s name?”

When Kevin responded, “His name is David,” the person on the other end hung up. When he called the next two agencies, he led with “This will be a same-sex adoption.’” Two more times he heard, “We don’t do that.” (Arizona law permits adoption agencies to refuse clients based on religious or political beliefs.)

Then the Pattersons approached Arizona’s Children Association, one of the oldest and largest nonprofit child-welfare and behavioral-health agencies in Arizona.

Kevin remembers the response from the ACA staff member who took their call: “We’ll be honest—you are the last priority for the state of Arizona. Legally can you adopt? Yes, but it’s not going to be easy. There are steps you will have to overcome. But we will help you, advocate for you. We want you to be successful.”

The Pattersons went through the 11-week certification process required of all prospective foster and adoptive parents. They found the other participants in their group to be supportive and warm.

But even in that safe environment, stigmas against same-sex couples persisted. It often came down to the formal language in the documents guiding role-play exercises and other activities designed to help prospective families anticipate, and prepare for, the challenges of bringing a child into their home.

“The curriculum is written for mom/dad families, so the running joke would be, ‘Which one of you will be the mom today?’” Kevin remembers.

The Pattersons are both psychologists whose jobs involve guiding employers and employees to build leadership skills and supportive, collaborative work environments. They worked with ACA to suggest changes to the certification process that would make it more inclusive of family diversity. (Kevin now serves on the ACA board.)

The occasional awkwardness of role-play scenarios was nothing compared with the stinging reality of their next challenge: They had to decide which one of them would formally adopt the children.

Legally, any individual resident of the state, whether married, unmarried or legally separated, is eligible to qualify to adopt children. It is the next sentence in the statue that creates problems for same-sex couples like the Pattersons. The statute specifies that a only a “husband and wife may jointly adopt children.”

“Two people can’t adopt one child,” Kevin explains. “You adopt as a married couple, or you’re treated as two single men who live in the same house—certified co-habitants.” Marriage was not an option for same-sex couples in Arizona in 2012, so the Pattersons had to choose.

As with most families, the decision came down to jobs. “Kevin got this great job at Banner Health,” David says. “He was the main provider at that point. Apollo was starting to downsize; there was some uncertainty.”

If David was forced to make a work transition, they feared it would bog things down. They didn’t want to face delays if paperwork had to be re-filed. That meant Kevin should be the legal parent.

David still had to separately get certified to adopt, right down to the requirement that he provide 20 character references.

“They couldn’t be the same ones [as mine],” Kevin says. “We had to figure out 40 different people. He had to be licensed, but he couldn’t adopt. On paper, he was my roommate.”

One by one, they tackled each challenge. And in June 2012, both men were certified to foster and adopt.

Preferential placement

When it’s time to place a child in a foster or adoptive home, Arizona statues are very clear: First preference is to extended family members—what’s called “kinship care.” Certainly, a capable and willing blood relative is a child’s next best option when parents are out of the picture.

The next priority is a married mother and father. Single moms come next, followed by single dads. Same-sex couples—lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)—come last. No reason is given.

For David and Kevin, successfully overcoming the hurdles of adoption certification was not enough to make them equal under the law. Now they had to face repeated emotional hurdles: They would express interest in a child who was available for adoption, only to be told that the child’s current foster family was not interested.

Family summaries were kept in red files the agency would take to a child’s foster parents. At those meetings, the foster parents would learn about the prospective couples or individuals hoping to adopt the child. They were also told of the state’s preferred placement priorities.

“Someone from DCS would say, ‘In the state of Arizona, this is what has been determined to be in the best interests of the child,’” Kevin says. “That would influence who they picked.”

Once there was a breakthrough—two boys were approved and on the way to the Pattersons’ house. At the last minute, an aunt surfaced who agreed to take the boys. The obvious is left unsaid: Where was this aunt when the boys first entered the care of the state? Why did she express interest in them only as they were about to be adopted by two men?

“It would take weeks to come back from the frustration, the letdown,” David says.

Success—and more stress

Early in 2013, Kevin and David were shown files for three children eligible for adoption: two African-American sisters and one Caucasian boy. David remembers the moment vividly. As he looked at the file for the girls, something spoke to him. He knew these were “the ones.”

He was almost afraid to hope Kevin would have the same reaction. He looked at Kevin and said, “I want you on the count of three to tell me which one you want.”

At the exact same moment, both men chose the girls. They called the caseworker. This match seemed particularly hopeful. The girls were already in a foster home with two moms. Objections to a same-sex household would not be an issue.

Still, the Pattersons took nothing for granted. They spent hours carefully rewriting the notes in their adoption file. They included pictures, descriptions of their pets and letters from their own parents.

In February, Cayden, then 6, and Cayla, then 3, came home, officially as a foster-to-adopt placement. In May, the family appeared in court for a final adoption hearing that bound them together legally, forever.

Kevin remembers even that joyous moment being tinged with anxiety: “The judge said, ‘This [adoption] gives me a lot of satisfaction, but I need to warn you. Your hurdles have just begun.” If something were to happen to Kevin, the judge reminded them, David (who had already left his job to become the full-time  stay-at-home parent) would have no legal right to keep the girls. Kevin’s family would have priority. It was even possible the girls would end up back in the foster-care system.

“You’ve got to do the work for marriage equality,” the judge continued. “Your family is the perfect reason why we need this.”

Adjusting to parenthood

Advocacy was the last thing on their minds. Kevin and David were busy getting to know their daughters, introducing them to family members and friends, establishing new routines, creating new family traditions.

There were appointments with the pediatrician, academic assessments, a school to choose. It soon became clear that some of the most routine tasks of parenthood—like taking a sick child to the doctor—were fraught with challenges.

Because he was not officially the parent, “David was not able to go back [to the examining room] with them,” Kevin says. “He would call me up and say, ‘Please tell this pediatrician that I can go back with them.’ ”

Sometimes a phone call was not enough. Time and time again, Kevin would have to leave work, get in the car and tell the same people in the same offices that it was OK for David to make decisions on behalf of the girls.

They were also navigating new territory as parents—and particularly as parents of children who had been in “the system.”

“Every [foster-to-adopt] parent has two ways to go into this,” Kevin explains. “There is the ‘I feel sorry for you’ approach, where you let them get away with anything, give them anything they want to eat, let them play all day. Then there’s the discipline side of it when you’ve got a child who’s never had structure. That first year, it was a lot about boundaries—how we treat each other, how we don’t.”

Sometime the girls would protest: “You guys are really mean!”

But whenever they doubted themselves, Kevin and David remembered the words of a therapist friend: “You’re trying to correct six years of no boundaries. You’re trying to catch up, because some of that structure was not there. Be mindful, but diligent. There’s got to be structure.”

When one of Cayden’s teachers acknowledged being a little easy on her because she “couldn’t imagine what she’d been through,” Kevin was insistent: “Don’t treat her any differently than you would any other student.”

Unbeknownst to either dad, the girls had started calling them Bear Daddy and Silly Daddy. On the day of a parent-teacher conference, Cayden was told her dad had arrived. “Is it Bear Daddy or Silly Daddy?” she asked.

Before the conference started, the teacher asked, “Which one of you is Bear Daddy?” As Cayden remembers it, “Bear Daddy’s face just turned bright pink.”

“Turns out I’m Bear Daddy,” says Kevin, who remembers thinking the teacher probably had a lot of questions about that nickname. But when he asked his daughter, “Why is my name Bear Daddy?” she had a perfectly logical reason: “Because of your car,” Cayden said. “Whenever we turn left it says, ‘Bear left.’ When we turn right, it says ‘Bear right.’ We just remember that your car talks about bears.”

Kevin Patterson, David Patterson, LGBT families, adoption, foster care, Arizona, marriage equality, Lambda Legal
On Oct. 17, 2014, Kevin and David Patterson (with their daughters Cayden and Cayla) became the first same-sex couple married in Arizona. The men had sued the state along with Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey (both in red), who have been together more than 50 years. Legal counsel: Jennifer C. Pizer (far left) and Carmina Ocampo (far right). Photo by Rick D’Elia.

Going public

Within a month of becoming new parents, an attorney friend of David met them for breakfast. He had agreed to help the staff of Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit organization that works for the civil rights of LGBT people, find plaintiffs for a same-sex-marriage lawsuit against the state of Arizona.

“I know your story would change the hearts and minds of people,” the friend told them. David, who has advocated openly for gay rights since college, immediately said yes. Kevin’s answer was a resounding, “No!” He wasn’t sure he wanted their family to get the attention the case would draw.

Still, his instincts told him it was the right thing to do. “I had to get over my fear,” he says. “The conversation that David and I have a lot is that visually our family does not fit the stereotype [of a typical family], but our day-to-day life could not be more normal or boring. … We’re going to Costco today. There’s no unique situation here. We wanted to put that out there.”

They agreed to be plaintiffs. They shared their story. Usually, it was the girls who won everyone over.

The gay-marriage lawsuit, Majors v. Horne, was filed in March 2014. On Oct. 17, 2014, the ruling came down. David and Kevin raced to the Maricopa County Clerk’s Office. It had been decided earlier that they would be the first same-sex couple married in Arizona.

Their co-plaintiffs, Karen Bailey and Nelda Majors of Scottsdale, would be the first couple to obtain a marriage license. Karen and Nelda had been together for 57 years, many of which they spent hiding their relationship from their own children. The two marriages represented both ends of the legal spectrum of rights for LGBT couples: equal participation as parents and equal participation in end-of-life decisions and care.

A new mission: Project Jigsaw

The number of Arizona children in foster care continued to grow. The Pattersons wondered how other members of the LGBT community could become part of the solution.

“It’s such a rich community [for adoption] because of the biological barriers to starting a family,” David says.

But LGBT families have to feel like they’re wanted, Kevin says. “For so many years, LGBT families have been told they’re not part of the community. Preferential-order bills hurt. But what really hurts is there’s a kid out there who has to be in foster care longer until someone puts families like ours on the same level.”

Kevin would go to board meetings at ACA and hear about the desperate need for foster and adoptive families. He also serves on the board of Equality Arizona, a nonprofit that works to maintain rights and protections for the LGBT community in Arizona. At those meetings, he’d hear about the difficulty of finding supportive adoption agencies. It was time to unify those concerns.

In April 2015, that concept got an assist from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who issued a statement describing his administration as “unambiguously and unapologetically pro-adoption” and instructing DCS to “ensure that all legally married couples in Arizona are able to jointly serve as foster parents and adopt.”

In August 2015, ACA and Equality Arizona launched a collaborative community effort called Project Jigsaw, with a mission to connect every child to a loving home and family. The Pattersons are largely credited for spearheading the work of the organization: educating families about the process, providing resources to current prospective adoptive families and advocating for policy and procedural changes to eliminate barriers.

In the recent legislative session, for example, Project Jigsaw supported proposed amendments to bills in both the Arizona House and Senate that would change language related to preferential placement of children into foster or adoptive families. One amendment asked that the sentence “A husband and wife may jointly adopt children” be changed to “A married couple may jointly adopt children.” It asked to strike language mandating placement preference to “a married man and woman” when all other relevant factors are equal.

None of the proposed amendments made it past committees, but in the process, Project Jigsaw found an unexpected Republican ally in state Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, who listened to Kevin testify during a hearing about an amendment to remove the preferential adoptive order that lists LGBT couples last.

As Kevin describes it, Brophy McGee was visibly emotional during his statement. A few days later, she called Kevin to ask how she could help.

“I was reminded of my time on the Washington School Board,” Brophy McGee later explained. “We would hold expulsion hearings for children who had committed very serious offenses. It was nearly always the case that the child lacked a caring, stable adult in his or her life, and that was the root of the many problems that child was experiencing.

“We should be advancing policy that broadens permanency options for children in the state’s care. The long-term success and well-being of these children depends on finding loving, nurturing, permanent homes, just as the Patterson’s two adopted daughters did.”

The Patterson family at Disneyland this spring. Cayla (6) liked “It’s a Small World” and Cayden (9) was enchanted by the mermaids. Photo courtesy of the Patterson Family.
The Patterson family at Disneyland this spring. Cayla (6) liked “It’s a Small World” and Cayden (9) was enchanted by the mermaids. Photo courtesy of the Patterson family.

Changing hearts and minds

And what about these two daughters? Cayden is now 9, Cayla is 6. They attend school in the Madison district. The girls love Legos, their bicycles, all things Harry Potter and their family’s four dogs.

On Saturdays, when it’s not too hot, they join their parents on hikes up Piestewa Peak, with breakfast at Chompie’s as a reward. They enjoy visiting the Burton Barr Central Library and Changing Hands Bookstore.

David has applied to adopt both girls so that he officially will have full parental rights. He is back at work at as organizational-development director—he, too, works at Banner Health.

Both dads have mastered the challenging and time-consuming task of styling African-American hair—though “hair time” can leave all four of them in tears of frustration, Kevin says ruefully.

Every Feb. 13, they celebrate the anniversary of the girls’ homecoming. And this spring, they went to Disneyland—as a family. Cayden enjoyed the parade and was enchanted by the mermaids. Cayla’s favorite attraction? “It’s a Small World After All.”

It’s not always sweetness and roses, both dads quickly acknowledge. They’ve faced curiosity and the occasional hurtful comment. It’s usually adults, not kids, who have a problem with their atypical family.

Kevin remembers being at a McDonald’s playground when a little girl asked Cayla about the guys who were watching her and her sister.

“Those are my daddies,” Cayden replied.

“You have two daddies?” the girl responded. “I only have one mom.”

“You can come to visit our house,” Cayla said. “We’ve got lots of love, and we like lots of different people.”