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Daddy and Papa

By |2005-06-16T09:00:00-04:00June 16th, 2005|News|

SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP – They could well be the poster family for domestic partnership benefits in Michigan; and, indeed, they are co-plaintiffs with 20 other families in the ACLU lawsuit that seeks to ensure that state-funded institutions can continue to offer such benefits.
Dennis and Tom Patrick have been foster parents for nearly five years. Today, they live with their three adopted sons and two foster sons in a roomy farmhouse in rural Washtenaw County. The house sits on five acres of land, providing a virtual paradise for the five adventuresome boys – and plenty of breathing room for the Patricks’ extended family: a dog, a bird, a turtle, some fish, three hens, a dozen chicks and two tiny goats who’ll very greedily eat out of your hand (or gladly settle for nibbling on your shirt if your hand’s empty).
Interviewing the two dads turns out to be quite a feat, even with one of their foster sons gone for the day with his biological family. The four remaining kids, eager for the chance to be close to both their dads, follow us into the living room with assorted toys in tow. Some toys prove to be too loud and are quickly confiscated. The banter is rowdy and I pray my mini-cassette recorder is up to the challenge.
Dennis and Tom met nearly eight years ago. Dennis, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, was faculty advisor for the college’s LGBT student group while Tom was earning his master’s degree in guidance counseling. Tom had been previously married to a woman, and as his relationship with Dennis started to grow, he wasn’t sure that he was up for children, something that Dennis badly wanted.
“I was a volunteer for Big Brothers and I mentored high school kids,” recalled Dennis, 42. “I’d done a lot working with kids and when I first came out, one of the things that was sad for me is that I thought that meant I wouldn’t be a dad. Because at the time, you didn’t see many gay parents like you do now. There are many more examples and role models now than there were when I came out.”
Slowly, Tom, 47, who teaches high school part time, warmed to the idea.
“Dennis just gave me space and I realized that I had always wanted to do this,” he said. “I wanted to be a dad and now was the opportunity for it.”
At this point, the recounting of their story is put on hold. Joshua, at age 9 the Patricks’ oldest son and the first that they adopted, has come into the room to report that Joey, 5, keeps coming on the line and interrupting him as he tries to talk on the phone to his biological brother. Dennis speaks firmly but politely to the children as he attempts to sort the situation out. Soon Joey is off to sit in the kitchen and Josh is able to return to his call in peace. Returning his attention to me, Dennis is all smiles.
“This is going to happen a lot,” he laughs.
Back to their story, Dennis talks about how the two were licensed as foster parents as a couple.
“We first went to Catholic Social Services in Oakland County to get licensed, because that’s where my friend and her husband are licensed through,” he said. “She asked them up front if it would be a problem licensing to a same-sex couple and they said, ‘Absolutely not.’ So we went through all the training, we went through the whole process of getting licensed except for the home study, which was the final step, and then one of the directors or somebody in the agency found out that the licensing worker was working with us, and told them that there’s no way [they were] going to license a same-sex couple because it goes against the canons of the Catholic church.”
Undeterred, the couple switched agencies and was quickly licensed. To date, they have fostered over a dozen children. To the kids, their parents’ same-sex relationship is no big deal.
“It takes them a while to figure out our relationship,” said Dennis. “When we pick them up we tell them, ‘In our family there’s two dads instead of a mom and a dad,’ and we thought that would be clear. But it’s not for some kids. They’ll ask if we’re brothers. There’s some awkwardness as they try to figure out the relationship, but we haven’t really had too much of a problem. Most of the kids tend to be pretty accepting. I think the thing they care about is that they recognize that they’re in a place where they’re safe. They care about that. They care about having a place to sleep and having food and being safe a lot more than our relationship.”
The Patricks’ children call Tom “papa” and Dennis “daddy.”
“We came up with those names when we had a foster daughter who referred to us both as mommy,” explained Tom. “She used to lift her arms when she needed comfort and she’d say, ‘Mommy,’ and we’d pick her up because that’s what she needed. But we decided to come up with names for ourselves.”
The names work and the gender issues in the house are few. Some biological families, however, are not always accepting of the arrangement. Twice there have been issues.
“One biological family told the agency – when they figured out their son was with a gay couple – they asked for their son to be removed and the agency really supported us and they essentially said, ‘Dennis and Tom are great foster parents and you’re lucky your kid is there and that’s where they’re going to stay,'” said Dennis. “Then we had another parent who actually went to court and had her attorney get the judge to have an emergency hearing to have her son taken out of our home because of our sexual orientation and the judge ruled against that.”
The ruling gave the Patricks comfort, but they’re well aware that the courts may not always be on their side. Though they can be foster parents as a couple, the state does not recognize second-parent adoptions, so Dennis had to adopt their three boys on his own.
“I have Tom as the legal guardian of my children,” Dennis explained. “But if I should pass away, even though that’s in my will that I want Tom to be the legal guardian, that’s just a recommendation to the judge. The judge does not have to follow that if he or she feels it’s not in the best interest of the children. And so if someone else should come forward, my sister for example, and would want the kids, and the judge felt that would be in their best interest, they could end up with her and it’s possible that Tom could never see them again.”
If the couple were to break up, Tom would likewise have no legal recourse to ensure visitation or continued co-parenting responsibilities.
“It’s scarier for the kids,” said Dennis. “It affects dads, but it affects kids even more, because there’s all kinds of benefits and protections that children get by having two legal parents that they don’t have with just a single one.”
At this point in the conversation the noise level has dropped drastically. Josh and Joey have headed outside to play in the dirt. Their foster son Patrick (name changed to protect the privacy of a child in foster care), sitting in the chair next to mine, asks if the video game he’s playing is too loud. Thankfully, it isn’t. Meanwhile, Scout, the family dog, has been chased off his chair by a flying plastic volcano thrown by Raul. Without so much as a single bark he saunters over to the sofa and snuggles up next to Tom. Raul shifts his attention to some plastic dinosaurs on the floor. The only noise he makes is an occasional – and impressively powerful – growl every now and then as his dinosaurs duel.
All of the Patricks’ children have been classified as “special needs” kids. The foster children are in therapy and Joshua suffers from a seizure disorder that requires him to see the doctor much more often than he’d like to. The big family is a busy one and the arrangement works as well as it does only because Tom is able to work part-time, thanks to the health benefits he receives from Dennis’ job. The threat of losing these benefits looms heavily over their loving family. But the threat of loss is something a foster parent must always be prepared for, knowing that a child could be taken from their home at any time.
“That’s the hardest part and you know, you end up becoming attached,” said Dennis. “You end up falling in love with some of these kids. Even though you think, ‘OK, they might be going home,’ but you can’t hold back. I mean, these kids need love and they need care and you just give it to them. You can’t hold back. And you fall in love with them and that’s the hardest part, when they go back and you never see them again and you just hope that they’re doing well and that you provided a good place for them while they were with you. People say, ‘I don’t know how you could do it,’ and I say, ‘Well, we’re not superhuman. You can do it. Somebody has to do it or all these kids would be living in group-homes. They wouldn’t be with families.'”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.